Thursday, January 8, 2009
Long ago, when I was much, much younger, I was essentially homeless for a few months. My entire family, in fact, was. If not for good friends and family who took a newly-divorced woman and her four young children in, we probably would've been, at least for a few weeks, living in a shelter - or in our run-down, caught-on-fire-twice station wagon named "Puff the Tragic Wagon." How'd it happen? It was remarkably simple for a family of five to become homeless. My father announced suddenly that he wanted a divorce. He left, and the court awarded my mother $450 a month in child support, which even in the mid-80s was a meager sum for one person, let alone five. Until my mother could find a way to make up the difference after being out of the workforce for nearly 10 years, and possessing only a high school diploma, $450 was not going to get us a home. So it's pretty much that easy to become homeless. I say this because the subject has come up after the City of Dallas announced it would be ticketing those that gave money to panhandlers. The subsequent discussions in various media comment boxes has ranged from the bleeding heart to the cold hearted. I'm torn. My experience does make me feel compassion for some - especially when children are involved. I have no hard numbers to back this up, but having covered this issue before, I believe that those people with children are likely not the ones panhandling that the city wants gone from downtown. Those people - the ones like my mother - are most likely at a shelter, and are trying to do whatever they can to attain stability and a home for their families. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that on any given night, 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless. According to a December 2000 report to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the numbers break down like this: 44% single men 13% single women 36% families with children 7% unaccompanied minors And according to a 1996 survey, 44 percent of those homeless surveyed had done paid work in the past month - telling me that the wages paid at the bottom tier are not - obviously - paying enough to live on. True, some of these people are probably working as day laborers, but this means that nearly half of the homeless polled in this survey worked - not panhandled. The same survey says that 66 percent have problems with alcohol, drug abuse or mental illness. If the able-bodied homeless person has trouble navigating the snarled boondoggle of aid available, how much harder must it be for someone who is impaired in some way? "Homelessness can thus be seen as a perverse game of musical chairs, in which the loss of "chairs" (low cost housing) forces some people to be left standing (homeless)," the National Coalition for the Homeless said in a report. "Those who are least able to secure a chair -- the most disabled and therefore the most vulnerable -- are more likely to be left without a place to sit." But really, who in their right mind would be homeless? According to the aforementioned survey, almost a quarter said they had been physically assaulted, and another seven percent said they had been sexually assaulted. Not to mention the environmental challenges involved. As it turns out statistically, not many actually want to be homeless. In fact, 30 percent of those surveyed had been homeless for more than two years. That - and bear with me, I'm not a math major - means that 70 percent were newly-homeless. One could expostulate that means that not many want to be homeless as a career path or lifestyle choice, and choose to get out of the situation as soon as possible. So who are these panhandlers? From experience, they seem to be able-bodied, and for whatever reason unwilling, perhaps, to work. I do remember from my days working downtown that you'd frequently have such people hanging about Union Station, asking for change to buy a train ticket. I found a simple litmus test for that - offering to purchase the ticket for them. More often than not, they'd decline that offer - sometimes respectfully, sometimes profanely. The one or two that took me up on the offer did so gratefully, and then waited for a train without continuing to ask people for money. I often marvel at those that stand on medians and such asking motorists for money. They do so in all kinds of weather, and I can't help but think that a shift at Wal-Mart, indoors, would be more pleasurable and probably has a better benefit plan. I'm not sure what it says for our economy that some people find begging for money to be more profitable than a normal, conventional workday. I'm equally unsure what it means for society that people would rather beg for money than stock shelves or wrap tacos. But I'm also not sure that a brute squad is the answer. There are a lot of reasons for why people panhandle, and why people are homeless. Until those underlying issues - transportation, affordable housing, job training, job opportunies - are addressed efficiently, meaningfully and seriously, throwing people in jail for panhandling will be like trying to catch the tide in a bucket. It's simply a choice of long, exhausting and futile, or long, exhausting, and fulfilling. I know which one I'd choose.