Bring it to Barb

Barb Rock

Dear Barb,

I just can’t believe how many drivers give money to people holding signs who are homeless, jobless, at freeway exits and corners in town. I recently talked with a sign holder who was about 35 years old and I offered him $60. He smiled and leaned into my car. I explained that I would give him $60 after he did some needed yard work at my home, which was a few blocks from where he was standing with his sign. I would pay him for four hours of work totaling $60. He had been there since early in the day and I assumed that by now he would want the extra money. The man refused to come to my house and when I offered tomorrow early in the morning, he was not interested, in fact he was not happy that I offered him money with contingencies. How can we fix this complicated homeless problem? If we keep encouraging individuals to accept money without earning it as if it were perfectly fine, aren’t we enabling the homeless problem to stay the same?


Dear Sad,

Giving money to the homeless is an economic crisis of the heart, a tug-of-war between the instinct to alleviate suffering and the knowledge that a donation might encourage, rather than relieve, the anguish of the poor.

But the fact that beggars are likely to spend their money quickly is also the problem.

Food stamps are considered highly effective government spending, but they’re earmarked for food. Unemployment benefits can go a long way, but recipients have to prove that they’re looking for work. A dollar from your hand to a homeless person’s carries no such strings attached.

If we drop change in a beggar’s hand without donating to a charity, we’re acting to relieve our guilt rather than the underlying crisis of poverty. The same calculus applies to the beggar who relies on panhandling for a booze hit. Both sides fail each other by being lured into a fleeting sense of relief rather than a lasting solution to the structural problem of homelessness.

Just because you walk by someone every day doesn’t mean that you know their story. Ask every homeless person you know if they truly want to be homeless, and I’m guessing they will all say no. Few people would choose to be homeless by choice. According to statistics, homelessness is often the result a few tragic mistakes that somehow spin out of control. It doesn’t make them a bad person.

It could be you one day! According to a 2014 study from Bankrate, approximately 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. That figure includes people from all walks of life, including the rich, which is somewhat hard to believe. Everything is relative!

But it’s also scary. Living paycheck to paycheck without a savings buffer often means that you’re only one sickness or job loss away from losing everything. When you’re used to spending every dollar you bring in, you are far less capable of figuring things out when the money dries up.

This is why people who live without a safety net or support system are susceptible to homelessness. For a quick scenario, let’s say you don’t have a savings and you get laid off from work. You would probably turn to a family member or friends for help, right? But what if none of your relatives can help? They are also barely getting by; they can barely fend for themselves. You can hardly ask your friends to help you when they are busy saving themselves.

Gather up any clothes, toys, books, household goods, toiletries or computers you’re not using and donate them to your local shelter.

If you do nothing else, be kind. The next time you see a homeless person on the street, don’t just look away. Most of the despair in being homeless comes from being treated like they don’t exist. Be kind; you don’t know their story.

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