The Person Behind The Sign

Posted: May 20, 2008 in Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Morality, Panhandling

Several days ago I wrote a post called Another Question Asked.

I mentioned how I’ve received numerous emails from folks who want more information about homelessness – something I most definitely approve of. My personal opinion is that the more we understand about this devastating social condition the better the chance that we can break through the stereotypes, misconceptions and prejudices that overshadow homelessness. And, if we can somehow get past the stigmas, perhaps we can make genuine headway at reducing the numbers of homeless on our nation’s streets.  

In that post, I also mentioned that most of these types emails are from college or university students who are using homelessness as a topic for a class related project or whatever. Again, something I approve of – after all, my generation hasn’t done enough to address the situation effectively and I’m hoping that this current generation will not make the same mistakes.

One student was doing his journalism "paper" on homelessness and wanted to know if he could "cite" the blog. Unfortunately he made the mistake of inquiring how many hits per day this site generates. I suspect he might have been thinking of plagiarizing and was trying to determine if he might get caught. Could there have been some "cutting and pasting" going on behind the scenes? The reason I suspect plagiarism is because I was able to track back where his email originated from and when I checked my stats, I discovered that someone in the same location had methodically read through about 200 of my posts.

The only thing that bothers me about these emails is that these students don’t seem to consider that they may not be the only ones asking me for this same information. I realize that these students are busy working toward "earning" their degrees, but for some reason it doesn’t seem occur to them that I don’t have the time to be their personal research department. That may be why the list of questions they ask is usually a dozen or so long.

One reader left a comment to that post and said:

Stay strong on this one – a college student can do their own research, and reading your site would be well worth the time spent. Some people are just lazy!

Part of my response to the comment was,

It’s a shame that there are those students who want the benefits of an education, but aren’t willing to put forth the efforts needed to attain their degree. You’re right – they’re lazy… but no one seems to care about that.

Yet, they’ll categorically condemn a homeless person who can’t find a job and label them with the word.

I’ll admit that during the time I was homeless, I did some panhandling. It wasn’t that I wanted to. I found the activity extremely distasteful, but I don’t – and won’t – steal. And because of the accident which left me with permanent spinal injuries, finding work was not an easy feat. When I couldn’t find day labor or temporary work and needed money that left panhandling as the only way to come up with the funds I needed. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with being lazy.

It always struck me as peculiar how many people would yell "Get a job!" out of their vehicle windows. And, there were quite a lot of people who did yell that at me. I’m sure they thought they were being clever, but it seemed to me that they were actually behaving quite cowardly. They’d never say anything while they were stopped. It was only as they began to drive away that their "courage" would kick in.

Only once did someone actually say something to me while they were completely stopped.

It was a woman in a full sized white SUV with a Disabled Persons tag hanging from her rear view mirror. She actually angrily told me to get a job. When I asked her if she had a job, she curtly informed me that she was disabled and couldn’t work.

My response was,

"How do you know I’m not disabled?"

What was even more peculiar to me is that none these folks who told me to get a job were at work themselves. They were out and about during the day; during regular "business hours." In a community as small as San Luis Obispo, I can’t believe that there are that many people who have night jobs.

Did these types of interactions bother me? You bet. Several times they made me down right angry – although it shouldn’t have. I should have just shrugged it off.

But what bothered me about it was that none of these "fine upstanding citizens" knew why I was homeless. They hadn’t made any effort to discover the person behind the sign. They saw only what their prejudices allowed them to see. They assumed a reason for my homelessness. I’m sure that they thought I was just being lazy.

I hope none of those folks ever have to find out what it’s like to be homeless; or what it’s like to be the person behind the sign.

  1. mary says:

    Would not reading two hundred posts to learn about homelessness from someone who has been there qualify as research?

    The thing I’ve noticed that many people think it the most amazing thing that a homeless person knows how to use the internet. I think the misconceptions about who homeless people are is due to the most visible members of the community~the chronic and unkempt types.

    One of those here in Long Beach, I learned, was a former lawyer. He tried a case that sent his brother to jail and could not forgive himself. I had seen him for years prior to becoming homeless and would never have thought him an attorney myself. He would route throw trash bins looking for food and he actually had money.

    Students can find out all kinds of stats and stuff about the homeless, but to actually cite a bona fide homeless person in their research can give them new perspective or education.


    In the case I mentioned, it turned out that the student did indeed plaigerize my blog. Approximately 90% of his “paper” had been copied exactly as I had written it.

    – m –

  2. J Ajax D says:

    The level of insensitivity in the United States is staggering. People don’t realize just how precarious life is. One minute you have a career, family, and home — the next your career is over, family is gone, and you’re homeless.

    Just as disturbing is people will never understand until they actually become homeless; I know I didn’t.

    I leave the reader with these words of advice: Don’t be too judgmental toward the homeless because remember, a serious illness or job loss is all it takes to turn an observer into an active participant.

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