What do you do when a homeless person stops you and begs? Do you go into your pockets and give a donation, or do you shun them and look the other way? Personally, I have mixed feelings about our homeless population.
I instinctively get mad when a homeless person approaches me because I never know whether or not they are telling me the truth when they ask me for money, or if they are simply trying to hustle me. I'm struggling too, and I know how hard it is to make ends meet, but I also wonder, why they always seem to approach me, when mostly every one else just walks right past them. Do I have sucker branded on my forehead?
Since I've started working downtown recently, I am amazed at the number of people I pass every day who live on the streets. Years ago, when I worked in Center City, I would see homeless men, but never entire families like I see these days. I can't figure out why there are so many homeless people in Philadelphia. I've read counts as high as 65,000 in a one-year period.
According to Project HOME, there are at least four thousand people in this city who daily have no place to go and who refuse to go to a shelter. And those numbers are expected to climb because of the current mortgage crisis.
But some of the beggars we see are actually criminals who've made a full time career out of harassing people for their hard earned money. Police call it panhandling and will arrest those who become a nuisance. The experts say we should never give homeless people money. If we want to help them, we should direct them to a shelter or give them food coupons instead. That way they can't go spend it on drugs or alcohol.
Struggling to feed my own family, I must admit I don't routinely carry around food coupons to hand out, but I guess I need to start, because I may have just been taken. Again.
One night recently, I was rushing to catch the train home from work, when a very poor looking pregnant woman approached me in front of the exact store that I needed to stop in. She showed me a crumpled piece of paper, which she claimed was an eviction notice (I don't know for sure because I didn't take the time to read it). She asked me if I could put her family in a hotel room. Did I mention that she also had four children under the age of five in tow? I surveyed them up and down, trying to determine if they were really that desperate or really that good at telling lies.
Now I know that panhandling is illegal, but the children tugged at my heartstrings. They looked too young to be part of a hoax, so, I figured, what the heck, and dug into my pocket. After all, it is the season for kindness. But it's all so the season for thievery.
I must admit that I've been conned before and am always angry with myself once I realize what has gone down. Getting taken advantage of makes me feel really stupid. But, I can't bear the thought of not helping some one who tells me they are hungry, especially when there are children.
A little voice inside my head whispered, " You're an idiot," and a wave of paranoia made me fear the woman had just gotten over on me. I went in the store, and the merchant, having watched it all go down laughed at me and said "she's been out there all day."
In the back of my mind was a familiar scenario that I had encountered years ago coming out of a New York subway.
A woman pushing a stroller with what looked like a baby, approached and after feeding me her sob story, I gave her my lunch money. As I turned to catch my train, she threw the stroller to the side, the blanketed doll fell to the floor and she ran away, laughing with glee.
Since I'm a reporter at heart, I should know better than to be taken by people who've made hustling their full time job. I want to believe in the good of the human spirit, and I know that not all homeless people choose to live that way. Even though there are some people who take advantage of the kindness of strangers like me, others have serious mental problems which keep them on the streets. Homelessness is everyone's problem, and we all need to put our heads together to figure out how solve it. Panhandlers - now that's between them, their Creator, and the police. *
Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.