Intolerance Is Not An Option

Posted: May 30, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Morality, Panhandling

Years ago I heard a proverb, or a wise saying or whatever you want to call it, which – to paraphrase it – says:

"Even a foolish person can avoid being recognized as foolish if they just keep silent."

… which is just a poetic way of saying

"Before opening mouth, engage brain."

Today I was witness to a situation that validates both sayings.  

About mid afternoon I stopped at a convenience store to purchase a bottle of water. Off to the side, some eight or nine feet, of the stores entrance stood a homeless gentleman. He wasn’t bothering anyone. He wasn’t getting in anyone’s way. He wasn’t making a nuisance of himself. He was holding a small cardboard sign.

When I say it was a small sign, I mean it was really small. Perhaps 8 inches tall and 10 wide. The lettering on it, written in pencil, could barely be seen. But I knew its purpose. The gentleman was panhandling.

I went into the store bought two bottles of water and four hot dogs. When I exited I walked over the gentleman, gave him one of the bottles and all of the hot dogs which he thanked me for.

Although I had a few errands to attend to I made the time to talk with him for several minutes. I asked the usual questions: how long he had been homeless; was he from the area and so forth. While we were talking I heard a voice behind me say:

"That’s illegal! You can’t do that here! You can’t just stand around begging for money. It’s called panhandling and it’s illegal in the State of California."

When I turned around I saw a man who was around my age, looking angrily at the homeless gentleman. I looked back at the homeless gentleman who was now looking down at the ground. I could see that he was embarrassed.

The other man was still talking saying that he should call the police and have the homeless man arrested for breaking the law and other such nonsense. As calmly as possible I tried explaining to the other man that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that panhandling was protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment, to which he responded:

"That’s bull—t and you know it!"

I could feel myself becoming annoyed. I’d had enough. And, I certainly wasn’t going to just stand there and be subjected to verbal abuse. But rather than open my mouth and say something that would have just created more problems I just stared at this man with as icily a stare as I could muster. Then I shook my head in a negative. That stopped him.

I continued to stare at him and each time he looked as though he were going to say something I would just shake my head. He finally stormed into the store and when he exited he shot me a look that would have curdled new milk. I just shook my head in disgust.

What bothers me about this "fine upstanding member of the community" is that he’s not alone in his contempt for the homeless. There are many, many more just like him. And it makes me think that the problem with homelessness isn’t the homeless themselves. Perhaps the problem with the homeless is more about how we choose to behave toward them.

I’ll admit that there are those homeless who are the epitome of the homeless stereotype. But those individuals represent only a small fraction of the total. Is it really fair of us as a society to be intolerant of every homeless person because of the few? And, doesn’t it reflect badly on our brand of morality?

I don’t know why that gentleman has such a disdain for the homeless. Maybe he’d been asked for spare change one too many times. It’s possible that he’s had a bad encounter with a homeless person in the past. Perhaps he’d been verbally accosted by a homeless person.

Regardless of the reason, it seems to me that it was wrong for him to take it out on the homeless gentleman I had been talking to. It’s not right to punish a person for someone else’s wrong doings. That’s not what this country is all about.

The mainstay of this nation is supposed to be one of tolerance – not intolerance. It’s about working together in order to, as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states, "… form a more perfect Union."

When we exhibit discrimination or prejudice toward any person or group of persons based on anything other than their personal characters, we betray the ideals on which this nation was founded.

It shouldn’t matter whether a person is homeless or non-homeless. We are all human beings and as such, we should be more than willing to lend one another a helping hand if it is in our ability to do so.

Anything less shouldn’t even be considered as an option.

  1. AnAmerican says:

    How sad that this man who berated a homeless person felt a duty to an erroneous interpretation of the law yet felt no duty to offer help to someone in need.

    Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
    – Plato (c.427 – 347 BC) –

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