Even A Smile Helps

Posted: March 27, 2007 in Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Money, Panhandling, Self Esteem

Best selling author, Michael Crichton wrote a book called "Congo." Like many of his books, it became a Hollywood film.

I know that it’s cliché for me to say that I liked the book better, but I did – really. For one thing, the book showed one of the story’s main characters, a gorilla named Amy, interacting with the other characters more often; and for another thing the book had dialogue that was absent from the movie.

One piece of dialogue missing from the movie, spoken by Munroe, the expedition’s guide, was something to the effect that: "…the purpose of life is to live."  

When I read those words (I wasn’t homeless yet), I was struck by their truth and simplicity. As I homeless man now, I find them poignant and bittersweet.

Being homeless, all of my daily activities are centered on one basic thing: to survive. That need to survive compels a person to do things that normally they would not do. Fortunately, I’ve never had to eat out of trash cans, but there have been days when I’ve gone without eating. I’ve slept in at the shelter here in SLO, under bushes, behind a building or two, and in a muddy field.

I’ve had to sleep in wet clothing, only to wake up the following morning and having to wear the same damp clothing the next day. Twice I’ve had, what little possessions I’ve owned, stolen. I have had obscenities shouted at me, demeaned, called names, have had half empty bottles of water and soda thrown at me, half eaten food thrown at me, looked at as though I were the scourge of the Earth, treated as though I were the plague, and I’ve even been threatened – all because I’m homeless. And yet, all I’m really trying to do is survive.

Of all the things I’ve had to deal with since becoming homeless, the one activity, for which I have the most loathing, is panhandling. To me it is, by far, the most despicable thing I’ve ever done – and the most de-humanizing.

One immutable fact about living is the necessity of have to deal in the coin of the realm: money. It doesn’t matter where on the social economic ladder you are. If you want or need goods or services you must have money. A simple: "Hi! How are you?" simply doesn’t cut it.

I would much rather wear myself out working than panhandling. Even day labor would be a plus. But, unemployment numbers are high, gainful employment is scarce. And, there are few places that are willing to hire someone who is going to show up at work each day carrying most, if not all, of their worldly possessions in a backpack and rolling luggage.

But because money is needed, homeless people are forced to perform certain activities to put a few bucks in their pockets. Many take whatever "work" comes their way, and because they are homeless many are taken advantage of when it comes to "payment for services rendered." Many simply are forced to recycle or panhandle.

Since I’ve never have been able to find enough aluminum cans or plastic bottles, which leaves me with one single option when I can’t find day labor: panhandling.

A non-homeless lady asked a multi-part question regarding panhandling. She did mention that she’d heard that some panhandlers could make about $200 a day.

I don’t know where she got her information regarding that $200 a day figure. I certainly don’t make that much. And, if you think about it logically, were I taking in $200 a day panhandling, I most certainly would not be homeless right now!

Geez! $200 a day, times 5 days is $1000 a week. That’s $52,000 a year! I were taking in $200 a day, I’d at least have vehicle to ride around in. As it is, I have enough problems coming up with enough funds to get a monthly pass.

I’ll admit, that there have been a handful of times when I’ve taken in, what to me is a substantial amount in one day. That, however, is the rare exception and not the norm. To be frank, I’ve walked away more times empty handed than I have with a large amount of money in my pocket.

Panhandling is a hit or miss activity.

Look, if you happen to see me standing somewhere, holding my little sign – make a choice: help or don’t help. The fact is that when I’m out there, I’m at the complete mercy of strangers.

If you choose to help me out, or you want to help me out, but are unable to at the time – Thank You. I appreciate the smallest gift, whether it’s a bottle of water or a dollar – even a smile.

If you don’t want to help – that’s fine too. After all, you don’t owe me a thing. But please don’t scowl at me as you pass. Don’t throw things at me. Don’t yell obscenities at me. Don’t pretend that you’ve dropped something on the floorboard of your car just so that you don’t have to look me in the eye.

And, please don’t act as if I don’t exist. I do. And, I’m just as much a human being as you are.

And, just some food for thought: A growing number of Americans are just one paycheck away from becoming homeless themselves. You might very well be one of them. I hope you never have to experience homelessness first hand. Believe me, you won’t like it.

But in the event that homeless finds you – think about this: How will you want others to treat you?

Like my sign says: "Homelessness Can Afflict Anyone"

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