O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
There is a great deal of anger in this city about the homelessness situation. For many of us, this anger is directed at the city officials and specific local organizations who we feel are failing to provide reasonable assistance to those who are in need. We are angry that encampments are being cleared while there is no housing available for the people who live in those camps. We are angry that the local shelter is being run by a private organization which is clearly more concerned with its image and profits than it is with the health and well-being of the people they’re supposed to serve. We are angry that individuals bringing free, healthy food to the homeless are being shut down and ordered to obtain licenses as “vendors.” And we are angry that the entire approach of this city toward the problem of homelessness has been the polar opposite of “harm reduction” and “housing first” methodologies, both of which have proven to be outstandingly effective throughout the rest of the country.
Others are angry for different reasons, and at different things. Many people seem to actually be angry with the victims of homelessness. They blame homeless people for all the things they have to do to survive without a home. They treat homelessness like it’s some sort of choice, and a product of laziness, rather than the result of extreme trauma and economic displacement. They actually think people want to be homeless, and that they prefer to live this way. They think a whole lot of other things too, based on anger and ignorance, which they then use as their excuse for trying to make homelessness even more miserable. Though ultimately, this behavior just makes those very same problems that they were angry about even worse than they were before.
At a recent meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, I once again got to see this anger and ignorance on full display. While most of us were there to speak on behalf of the homeless, or about the need for more affordable housing, or better wages, at least one person had a very different agenda. As such, we were able to hear some prime examples of how the anger people feel toward the victims of homelessness is based on not actually knowing what they’re talking about. So I felt this would be a good opportunity to shed some light on these kinds of misunderstandings, and hopefully cause some folks to reconsider who it is that truly deserves their anger.
One of the simplest examples to address was a complaint about potential abuses at the local food pantry. Someone mentioned that they regularly see expensive cars parked there, along with cars that have license plates from Massachusetts. I used to have to go to that food pantry myself, after significant injuries had prevented me from working for several months. So I can easily clear up this confusion. Because at the pantry you are given one or two weeks’ worth of food at a time. Sometimes I’ve had to carry that all home, on foot, in the heat. Other times I was lucky enough to get rides from friends, or even from strangers. Some of them had nice cars. Some of them had out-of-state plates. If you think people who can afford to buy their groceries are going to the food pantry then you haven’t tried the food from that pantry. It’s absolutely not worth the savings, even when it’s free. And you really think people are driving up from Massachusetts, with these gas prices, when there are better pantries down there anyway? Come on now.
The other major complaint was about the panhandlers. Despite the fact that these people are harming no one, it was said that anyone who is panhandling while being seemingly able-bodied should be “arrested.” Now that is some serious anger, which I think is very seriously misdirected. Not all disabilities are visible. Many of the people who are struggling with homelessness are also struggling with severe mental and emotional health issues. Sometimes these are the same issues that primarily caused them to become homeless in the first place. In other cases, these issues developed as a result of the intense traumas of having to become homeless. Even if that’s not the case, maybe they’re struggling with something else. Ever try to get a job when you don’t have an address, or access to a shower, or clean clothes, or a wake-up alarm?
In an attempt to try to demonstrate that panhandlers are just scamming people, there was a specific description of one man who regularly panhandles in a wheelchair. It was said that he makes “$500-600 per day” before he then stands up and walks away while pushing his wheelchair. As luck would have it, I happen to know that man quite well. He is a friend of mine, to whom I speak with almost every day. His name is Mace. And we even got to talk for a while that very same night after the BoMA meeting. Yes, Mace can walk. Which is all thanks to a very helpful and very convincing prosthetic leg.
That’s right: Mace, who was publicly accused last week of scamming people with a fake wheelchair, has only one real leg. He uses that chair to cut down on the fatigue and other damage which would be caused to his only remaining leg if he were to rely solely upon using his prosthetic all the time. When Mace came back over to where he usually spends the night after panhandling he had made exactly five dollars that evening. Not five hundred, and certainly not six hundred. He had also found out that very same day that his request for food stamp assistance was denied. He didn’t even have a hat to put on when the temperatures dropped. So I gave him mine, off the top of my own head.
Mace found it quite interesting that he had been singled out and so grossly misrepresented during that meeting. He seems convinced that he actually met the man who spoke about him, when that man stopped his car to openly harass him on the street. He said it was so bad that he stood up out of his chair and was ready to punch the man right in the face. Just imagine the kind of deep and wrongly-focused anger it takes to stop and harass a one-legged man on the streets. A man who can’t even get food stamps, or afford to buy a warm hat. Is there anybody who wants to be “that guy”? Is there anyone who wants to potentially end up having to tell people you got beat up for doing something like that, by a man with one leg?
Nobody wants to be homeless. Nobody wants to have to beg or panhandle, or take food from a food pantry. That isn’t a choice people make, ever. Not if they have other options. I know more of the people in this city who are struggling with homelessness than just about anyone else does. There isn’t a single one among them who wouldn’t rather be living a normal life, working a normal job, and sleeping in a normal home. They need a hand-up, just like most of us have needed at some point in our lives. They’re not getting it, which is why my friends and I have been so angry with those who are supposed to be making sure that they do get it. Instead, many have no choice but to rely on hand-outs just to survive. And if you think they’re just being lazy then I dare you to spend just one day having to live like they do. Because I know of almost no one who is working harder in their job or their life than these people are working every single day just to survive.
If you really want the problems that you’re so angry about to stop then do something.
Don’t just sit in front of people complaining about things that you know nothing about. Go learn about them. Don’t keep victimizing people then blaming it all on your own victims. Find ways to offer people a hand-up if you can. Or at least a hand-out, if only to tide them over until a hand-up finally does come along. Give to the panhandlers. Donate food or clothes, or time, to help people make it through. Find out what their struggles really are, rather than thinking you know, when clearly you don’t. Because otherwise, you’re not just a part of the problem, you are the problem.
Trying to say that the real problem is people like Mace causes real harm to real people. Specifically, it harms the last people in the world who deserve or can withstand any more harm. And frankly, to everyone who actually does know better, it just makes you look like a mindlessly hateful and completely ignorant fool.
Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Send your thoughtful submission to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration, subject line: The Soapbox.