LAST SUMMER I was walking to Minute Maid Park, about a block away from the George R. Brown Convention Center, when a man approached me and asked if I could help him out.
He didn’t tell me how he wanted me to help him. He didn’t have to. He wanted money.
So I reached into my pocket and took out a dollar bill and handed it to him. Having lived in Washington for 14 years before moving back to Houston, I had become accustomed to putting in my pants pocket a dollar bill or two so that I wouldn’t have to take out my wallet when a panhandler asked for money.
As soon as I did that, I heard a siren go off nearby. I turned to look and saw a Houston police car speed towards me and the panhandler, who was still only a few feet away from me.
“Give him the money back!” one of the cops yelled at the panhandler.
The guy was about to give it to me when I protested that I didn’t want the money back, that I had given it to him and it was his now, now mine.
“It’s a scam, sir,” the officer said, as if that would explain everything. “This guy is a scam artist.”
“He may be,” I responded. “But if he is, it’s between him and his conscience. I willingly chose to give him the money and I don’t want it back.”
We went on like that, back and forth, until the officers became convinced that I was not going to take the dollar bill back.
I WAS REMINDED of that scene this week when I read in the Houston Chronicle that the Houston City Council is about to vote to make criminals of anyone who stands on a city street or sidewalk and asks for money. The ordinance would also prohibit sleeping on sidewalks, doorways, freeway underpasses – pretty much anywhere.
It’s the city’s latest attempt to make homeless people feel so unwelcome that they’ll go somewhere else. As if they could.
Councilman Robert Gallegos explained his anti-homeless views (according to the Chronicle) by saying his constituents are concerned that then they come out of their building, “there are individuals who are panhandling or sleeping in the doorway of their building.”
Do these people have guns or knives? Are they threatening these residents and workers in any way? Maybe some of them are dangerous, but in the entire article, not a word was said about criminal acts committed by the homeless persons. What the council members were concerned about was that these people exist at all, and they are doing things that normal living, breathing people do. Like sleep. Like rest. Like find ways to put food in their mouths. Like find ways to feed their habits. (What? Only well-off folks are allowed to have habits?)
Mayor Sylvester Turner, who proposed the ordinance, claims the city will build more shelters for the homeless but he’s vague about exactly what those shelters will consist of and how soon they’ll go up.
The fact is that this anti-homeless person has absolutely nothing to do with safety or health and has everything to do with our sensibilities. We just don’t like to see those people anywhere near us, much less getting close enough for them to ask us for a miserable dollar bill.
“This is the response of local governments … to make homeless people disappear,” Paul Boden, executive and organizing director for the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project, told the Chronicle. “When you put all (of those restrictions) together, you’re basically saying, ‘I don’t want to see you.’ ”
WHEN I READ that, I was reminded of something I read in Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong.”
Brown writes about attending an event to benefit the Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal church in Houston dedicated to serving the homeless. She quoted a line from the remarks of Murray Powell, who was then pastor of Lord of the Streets:
“When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.”
So maybe the City Council should go ahead and have that vote, but they should move it out of their safe cocoon of council chambers and into the street to an area where the homeless gather. They should be forced to look the homeless in the eye as they cast their ayes.
I have many friends who firmly believe that looking away from homeless persons is the best policy, and that giving them money is the worst thing we can do.
I respect them, but I disagree. Not only do I give money to every homeless person who asks for some (if I have it), but I also make a point of looking them in the eye and uttering a few words.
“Take care of yourself.”
“Have a good day.”
“Good luck to you.”
Anything, anything to convince them – I hope – that I see them as fellow human beings, in need, not as monsters, not as the enemy, not as something to grumble about.
And to convince myself that I am still human.
Juan–I absolutely agree with everything that you said. I add one caution though. When you give money like that to someone, you need to evaluate them and the situation before letting them get close and you reaching into your pocket. Some years ago, I was approached by two men asking for money while I was in the parking lot of the Spec’s liquor warehouse on Smith St loading my purchase in the car. I had seen them standing around when I walked in. After setting my stuff in the car, which included a bottle of nice champagne asBlanca and I were celebrating something, I said sure, reached into my pocket, gave them all my change and the next thing I knew there was an arm around me, a knife being held in my ribs and a voice telling me “Now give me it all.” I gave him my money and he then demanded my car keys, which I gave him as the car was not worth my life. He then told me to get in the car. At that point, I knew that I was dead if I got in the car. The man felt my resistance and poked the knife a bit into my ribs and repeated the demand. There were people in the parking lot who could see what was going on. I was fifteen yards from the front door and figured that if I took off running, I would be half way there before they could react. So I said OK, OK and started to act like I was going to get in the car. He loosened his grip on me, I shook hard and took off for the front door not looking back until my hands hit the door handle. They had disappearded without my car. I said to the cashier who I had checked out with that I had just been mugged in the parking lot. Her response, “They didn’t get the champagne did they?” The only humor to the whole incident. The police later confirmed that if I had gotten in the car with them, I would be dead.
My whole point is that I failed to evaluate the situation, and it can be a rouse to get close enough to you to mug you. There were two of them, both considerably larger than me. They did not look like they were homeless and really needed money badly. I should have looked more closely, said no and backed away to create more distance. I think that it is usually quite clear who needs money and who doesn’t, so just be aware of the situation and be prepared to say no.
That’s a horrible experience you went through, my friend. And you’re right: we always need to be careful and we need to evaluate each situation. Gracias (and how was that champagne?)
I’ve noticed that sometimes, after you give them some money, they want to chat. Like they need that as much as the money.