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.