Sunday, December 19, 2010
Thoughts on telling people to 'Get a job'
It's said that you grow more conservative as you grow older. I may be seeing it now in regard to panhandlers.
Flash back a few years. I am walking down Hope Street in Providence with my friend who works at the JCC gym. He sees a man asking for change outside an ATM. This man is missing teeth, looks strung out and in pretty sad shape. My friend knows him, gives him a few bucks and we leave. He tells me, "Yeah, I know the guy and I know he's addicted and gonna spend it on drugs, but my mother always told me to help people in need, so what can I do?"
Well, for starters, not giving him money sounded like a good idea. I think the altruism of helping a needy person is canceled out if you are reasonably sure they are going to blow the money on drugs or alcohol (which, according to various studies, is what happens 50-90% of the time). I already believed this back then, and had as my policy to only give people food if they asked for money. It's a pretty good policy, I think.
But now I'm wondering if I've moved past that point. A few minutes ago I just past a bearded young guy sitting outside a CVS in the very cold weather. He most likely did not have to be sitting in the cold on a main street without wind-breaking walls at that particular moment. Just like the homeless man I pass every day on the way to the metro doesn't have to sit in the open street where hundreds of people pass by - there is an alleyway just a few feet away where he'd be warmer, or I'm sure there are other slightly better options if he looked. He may be poor, but he's not stupid. He chooses to sit there because he has a reasonably good chance of getting money if he asks. It's outside the Rosslyn metro stop, and there's a lot of money here, so that's where he sits. If there wasn't money here, he'd move.
Now, I always thought telling someone to "Get a job" was pretty callous. I'm sure if it was that easy, they would have already gotten one, right? But not necessarily. There are many options for people who are at that level of destitution - being a Street Sense vendor and selling the local Homeless newspaper is just one well-publicized option that they are already aware of. How do I know? The shelters where they usually sleep have them publicized there. And by subjecting himself to the harsh winter winds rather than finding a warmer place to spend his days (the library, overflow shelters, heck - even a subway grate) he's increasing his chances of becoming ill or even dying.
So I'm not sure what to make of this. While it is clearly a good deed to feed a hungry person, what if by giving them food or money you are enabling and encouraging them to beg, and therefore contributing to a poorer lifestyle? Clearly not a new issue, but a difficult one.