I’ve been in my apartment now, “housed up” for close to 3 months. Almost long enough to forget how difficult the previous nine months had been. Almost.
While we were trying to survive as outcasts of society, we had to panhandle on occasion to get gas for our vehicle (which was also serving as our home) and a hot meal. What an eye-opening and difficult experience that was. I’d love to tell you some of the crazy experiences we encountered, including some truly amazing and beautiful interactions with people whose hearts are still in line with their actions. But I am not willing to go there until I know you’ve looked at this issue and can reflectively understand what I’ve seen without passing judgement.
Panhandling is one of those issues that people have strong emotional reactions to. Generally speaking, people who have not been on the receiving end of societal neglect or scorn have a lot of opinions because they have not taken the empathetic approach to asking what is actually going on in the lives of those souls holding that cardboard sign.
Having been on both sides of that cardboard fence, allow me to tread lightly on this controversial issue and offer some honest reflection and rational feedback. The short answer to the question of what to do about panhandling is that advocates in defense of panhandling as a first amendment right as well as the public distrust and anger at those making a living this way are both valid. That’s the short answer.
Here’s where the biggest problem lies and why, for now at least, we must demand that this freedom of speech -to request help, to make our need for help publicly known, even if the way we are doing it is with a cardboard sign- is upheld: Our infrastructure and shelter system is sorely inadequate in meeting the needs of our impoverished and homeless citizens. Our economy is such that you can bet there will be an increase in panhandling before there is a reduction.
In order to avoid the legal ramifications of violating this freedom of speech, many communities are developing or have policies and media campaigns that discourage panhandling. Before any city or municipality decides to encourage its’ residents to stop giving to panhandlers directly but to donate to the shelter or other homeless support systems instead, they should be certain their cities actually have that infrastructure in place. That means enough affordable housing, shelter space, food and medical services to address the issues these people are experiencing.
This is almost never the case. No, I’m being nice…it is NEVER the case and your ten dollars isn’t going to do a lot to change that. That ten dollars given directly to a panhandler, however, that momentary and vital human connection and kindness may foster a hope that keeps even the panhandling addict you think you are enabling, hanging on for one more day, maybe even until the day they choose recovery. Should you give them your last ten dollars? Not in my opinion. Not unless you feel called to do so, in which case you better ask the Holy Spirit, not me. But I’ve seen a lot of people, living really nice lives, passing judgment and thinking this isn’t their problem. The middle of the road people tend to be under the disillusion that we have a system in place to help these people that is paid for with tax dollars. This inaccuracy and the campaigns supporting it cause far too many Good Samaritans to erroneously believe the people still out there panhandling simply don’t want the help.
If the system was that good…they wouldn’t be out there in the first place. You need to believe me on that one. It has taken me over two years to get housed and I am college educated and spiritually wise. Despite these things in my favor, I know I wouldn’t have been out there at all if this economy and the social service systems we have in place for people unable to work, hadn’t failed me and I was not an addict. Social Security disability benefits can take anywhere from 2-10 years to get approved and requires both an address and access to better than subpar and provisional medical care.
Furthermore, you need to understand that the “system” is just a quick fix that almost never has enough supportive services in place to deal with the beast that is addiction to offer the kind of help that is actually needed to create success. What the system is designed to do is get people “good enough”. They put a band-aid over gaping and infected wounds and if a person is then capable of bringing home a weekly paycheck they have considered their efforts successful.
Because this is a tricky, controversial issue, miles away from black and white, the long answer requires looking more honestly at both why people panhandle and why people judge the panhandler. I will be doing a series of blogs on this issue to help unearth this sore spot in our collective consciences and see if we can set the stage for some helpful and proactive approaches or at the very least create a more honest dialogue. I sincerely doubt the people influencing these policy decisions -which can have tremendous impact on each and every citizen’s rights- have sat there with a cardboard sign hoping to survive one more day on the streets before someone rescues them.
Examining the inadequacies of the shelter system could easily take ten books by itself. That’s part of the answer to why people panhandle, but since I’m blogging and not trying to write those ten books just yet, let’s answer the question of who is out there asking for your help and how you are reacting to them. Answering this sheds a lot of light on what types of solutions would most fruitfully address this issue without just causing more problems, like putting more limits on our already under duress freedom of speech.
Let me also stop everything real quick and make it clear that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for someone to make enough money panhandling to afford an apartment or vehicle or other type of stable environment (especially due to housing discrimination in the form of mandatory proof of income three times the value of the apartment). That is a fallacy that should be obvious to a thinking person so I’m going to leave it at that.
So who is out there panhandling?
To simplify things so we can actually view this issue with some integrity and logic and perhaps provide you with the impetus to investigate this trend more thoroughly, let me give you the 5 types of panhandling situations I have personally encountered. I am not going to assume responsibility for speaking to things which I have not personally examined, observed or researched. That is not my way. So this is not a PhD thesis, this is what I have witnessed and/or encountered:
- The addict
- The chronically homeless
- The traveler
- The scammer
- The housed up but still too poor to make ends meet
The two main ingredients of the panhandling world that cause the most confusion and anger are the addicts and the scammers. Couple that with the incorrect view that there is an awesome abundance of services and a system in place to help the disenfranchised and you have a recipe for the disaster we are currently witness to.
This article is going to examine the issue of addiction first, we’ll get to the scammers, the chronically homeless, the travelers and the otherwise needy in the next article. I’m highlighting addiction first because I believe this is the main reason even kind and compassionate people get confused about panhandling. Furthermore, most people seem to be under the impression that every panhandler is an addict and this is where a lot of negative feelings and frustration come from. However, not all panhandlers are addicts. Period. Get that through your heads. But even if they were…
The way we deal with drug addiction right now in this country is ridiculous. Seriously. Drug addicted individuals are treated worse than the devil at a family reunion in heaven. Their problems are seen as entirely due to a lack of willpower, morals and personal responsibility. This is your first error in judgment. But it sets the scene for everything else that all panhandlers experience which includes being on the receiving end of rage, harassment, physical assault and a denial of their implicit beauty and rights as a human and as a citizen.
Addicts aren’t just lazy assholes who don’t give a fuck and want something for free, not generally. In my experience, they are broken. Do you actually know some addicts who were whole and healthy people that just decided real life wasn’t for them? You don’t. You may think you do, but you don’t. There is ALWAYS some hidden -or not so hidden- underlying trauma or reason that creates within them a desire to escape… by any means.
A more honest look at addiction will reveal it is tantamount to suicidal ideation. They don’t want to live but aren’t ready to die. Drugs affect consciousness so if we understand what the drug does for them, we may begin to understand why they are using it and I promise it has less to do with looking for a way to get out of WORKING than looking for a way to get relief from their own conscious awareness.
The first step in looking at this issue is to get past your own emotional reaction, your personal beliefs which you might have eaten up and allowed to influence your behavior without having examined them. Let’s address this problem in a helpful way, to do that we must utilize some logic…please.
Why would anyone want to get away from their own thoughts and emotions? What is one to do when a constant stream of television and social media doesn’t work? What is one to do when they do not feel equipped to deal with society on society’s terms? What is one to do when they feel loneliness and despair without a clue or direction on how to sooth themselves? What is one to do when they have mental health issues in a civilization that has barely scratched the surface on understanding consciousness at all, let alone how emotions are used to filter and experience our world? When exactly is one supposed to heal from trauma when this society doesn’t even give breaks to physically disabled people, with issues that are easy to observe and comprehend? Where exactly are they supposed to find time and support so that they can have room to contemplate the bigger issues their souls are dealing with?
We really do not have answers to these questions. If we did, we would not see the rates of mental illness that we do. We have barely scratched the surface on understanding the human mind, trying to grasp how our emotions and thoughts and spirit relate to these unchartered territories without a clear foundation is not in anyone’s favor. For real.
So your hatred of the addicted panhandler comes from a hatred of an issue you are not equipped to be judging, a false belief that was imposed on you that states if a person is not participating in society in an economically responsible way they are a bad person and they deserve not only your scorn but your ignorance to what this is really saying about our society.
Have you ever spent time with an ex-addict? Someone who finally reached the point where they were ready to deal with their own demons (or yours), slayed those demons and came out the other side? Because the ones I have met know more about the human mind and spirit than Sigmund Freud could ever have fathomed.
The other thing you should examine if you are ready to get really real…is what YOU are addicted to. Because it is far more likely than not that you have your own vices, they just happen to be vices society supports and has deemed okey dokey. TV? Coffee? Cigarettes? Complaining? Material possessions? Gossip? The internet? God? Your own image in a mirror? Ye who is without sin, please feel free to throw that first stone, just make sure some version of your hidden world wouldn’t also be on the receiving end. Self-examination is a bitch few people are strong enough to follow through with.
Panhandling is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is caused by a multitude of false beliefs that have caused a virus we are not treating with the right medicine. Instead we have made it a crime to be sick. We have made the victims of this viral attack the bad guys, meanwhile ignoring the obvious fact that viruses are contagious. Chew on that one for a while. When you’re done, consider what we would need to do to develop an immunity to addiction and self-hatred. What things could we ADD to our society that would reduce the drive to reject society’s standards or the inability to achieve its goals?
So, we want to outlaw panhandling because we don’t want to feed their suicide demon. I get that. But it is ridiculous to think you can fix this problem by throwing them in jail or fining them so that it is even harder for them to get on their feet and healthy enough, both body and soul, to participate in society again, economically or otherwise.
What are the alternatives? What are the solutions?
The short answer here is love. Unfortunately, most people have a very limited understanding of love as a verb. So even this must be addressed before we can apply it to the complex issue of addiction and how it relates to panhandling. How do we love a person that does not love or value themselves? This is where most people get hung up but this is exactly where love is the most powerful.
Utilizing love as a verb to heal another means we choose to reflect back to them their positive qualities, their strengths and unique gifts and perspective and we stay committed to do this until they can see what we see. We do this not by ignoring their flaws, but giving them space to heal from the existential crisis that awareness of their own imperfections may have caused. We need to step up and do this for them because some experience or someone gave them reason to believe they were not worthy of love, especially the kind we reflect back to ourselves and without this ability it is not possible to choose healthy approaches or methods that self-soothe rather than self-annihilate.
We have not yet taken a proactive approach to addiction. What we have done is created another war. We hate the addict for reminding us of our own inadequacies and we imprison, neglect and avoid them in order to pacify our own egos. That’s a fact. I’ve been on the very sober and eyes wide open receiving end of judgement and criticism that was a direct reflection of ego and false beliefs. But I am also guilty of getting annoyed and angry and walking by the addict in self-righteous judgment, even while I was homeless and panhandling. I know what it feels like to use that moment of judgment to feel good about ourselves cause even if we suck at x,y and z, we don’t suck at staying sober or housed. Yay us.
Perhaps the biggest question that should be addressed regarding the addict is whether or not we have a right to tell someone they must want to live without also offering them a reason to. Having a job and a family is simply not enough of a carrot for someone who has been traumatized. We cannot assume to know how long each individual needs to recover from the myriad ways they could have been hurt by things such as sexual abuse, assault, or emotional and physical neglect. We cannot assume to know what kind of psychological damage occurs when a soldier is forced to take another life for the welfare of their countrymen.
Rather than disdain and finger-pointing, we need to create more environments and access to services that actually repair a traumatized soul. What we do now is send them out into the world at 18 and expect them to figure it out while simultaneously holding a full-time job and attending to their daily needs. In order for broken people to feel well, to feel loved and to know what healthy looks like, we need to give them the time, space and tools to heal. Until we do that we are only perpetuating their belief that life is not worth living, using anger instead of compassion only serves to judge and alienate them further is the equivalent of a death sentence.
The good news is that promising solutions are within the realms of possibility. My brother once worked at a wet shelter called St. Anthony Residence in St. Paul, MN. It provided “permanent housing for late-stage chronic alcoholic men in Ramsey County with a history of failure in traditional chemical dependency treatment programs”.
The bad news is there are very few services like this. Most of the help that is offered to homeless people comes with the condition of sobriety first. That means a person who is not yet ready or able to quit their addiction or for whom there is no treatment options available, economically possible or successful is left on the streets. This continues the cycle, further perpetuating a decline in their health and adding extensive and sometimes impossible legal barriers to employment and housing. This approach offers nothing in the way of coping skills to address the trauma and emotional issues they are already unable to manage.
If you really don’t want to see those addicts out their killing themselves on your dime, at least understand that you are paying a lot more for them to be jailed and neglected. I hope you have also taken into consideration that no one is going to hire an addict. Most jobs require passing a drug test to get hired. Even stable, healthy marijuana users are facing this discrimination. So when you pass them by and shout “get a job” it only shows how little understanding you have of this system you are so enthusiastic to support.
The wise approach to this issue includes doing the work to create a society that allows families time to be together and raise healthy children. This must include opportunities for personal development and a more robust view on what choices we have for this one life given to us… that goes beyond working a traditional 9-5.
To that end, examining the issue of addiction must also take into consideration the desire for some people to experiment with conscious altering drugs as part of their own spiritual awakening or journey. An experimentation that can lead to addiction when not adequately supported or understood. If we had a more well-rounded take on spirituality, these experiences could be sought after and guided by traditional healers and shamans, which used to be a staple part of those early civilizations which we now ridicule as foolish or pagan.
By rejecting these indigenous ways of addressing the otherworldly seeking novice, the pioneers and explorers of the unknown, we set ourselves up for failure as a society and addiction is just one way this shows up. We have so discouraged an alternative approach to understanding the human condition that we have become stagnant and completely ill-equipped to handle the problems that come with this lack of guidance.
We could eliminate or reduce the existential depression by expanding our appreciation and support of conscious work. Bravo to all the light workers out there doing just that!! This one thing will have the most long-term effect on addiction. Currently, if one is interested in exploring a traditional medicine like Ayahuasca for example, which holds tremendous healing advantages, you are looking at a price tag in the range of 2-3 thousand dollars at the minimum which is absolutely prohibitive for most people.
Marijuana, one of the safer consciousness altering medicines is just now gaining popular support but still remains illegal in most places and where it is legal, still remains socially discouraged and frowned upon. Despite the massive amount of evidence showing it to be a safe and more effective medication for an extremely wide range of conditions, it remains underutilized in the treatment of addiction.
In closing, be mindful of what alternatives are available to the panhandler who is seeking funds to self-medicate. Untreated mental health and addiction can very easily lead to a desperation that makes stealing and lying an act of self-preservation. And addicts do come back. Don’t forget that. They have potential that has not even begun to be tapped.
While you wait for the next article where I will address the issue of scammers (and I have seen them all) I’ll leave you with this:
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