Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Got some spare change, man?"

That is a very common phrase people who live in the city and its nearby suburbs hear on a regular basis. Whether you are in your car, crossing the street, or about to enter your favorite café, one is bound to have a meagerly-clad fellow or woman approach you, hold out a cup, and ask, "May I please have some change so I can get something to eat?"Maybe she is sitting on the ground holding a sign that says, "Hungry. Help," or, maybe he is standing, flashing a sign that says, "I'm like Obama; I just want change," (true story, and I have the picture to prove it.)

When such a person presents him or herself, people like you and me are likely to wonder the following:

"Why can't he find a job?"

"There are shelters and charities; why can't she get help there?"

"I wish this filthy creep would get away from me; if I give him money, I will be funding his alcohol or drug habit."

Trust me, I used to think the same things myself, and I thought it was silly to give some "bum" any of my hard-earned money.  There was a time I had tickets to the circus, and I decided to treat my cousin Putty and her daughter. Afterwards, when we were looking for her car to leave, a homeless man approached us and asked for change. Without hesitating, Putty reached in her pocket and gave the grateful man some money.  I told her that she shouldn't have given him anything as he were likely to use the money to buy alcohol. Putty put me right in my place. "That's between him and God!" she admonished. That humbled me, and I was silent throughout the ride home. I gave it thought, and I knew she was right.

Yet in all my blessings, I never even remotely understood what it is like to depend on the charity of strangers for a mere meal. The closest I ever came was when I was laid off in the summer of 2004--during the first of two horrible recessions of this millennium. I had graduated from college magna cum laude and was a member of an honor society--yet in all my applications and interviews, I could not get a full time job. And then, I was laid off. During that time, I depended on my savings and almost forgot the taste of meat because I had to live off of rice, potatoes, and pasta. I worried that I would find myself on the street, just like the people I had shunned. God be praised, I was reinstated to my job.

 Thus, to answer the question of homeless people finding jobs, let me just say that it is not easy for anyone, but it is worse for a person who grew up poor and without knowledge of resources. Then I became a social worker, and I met my clients, most of whom are unfit for work. When you have a psychiatric, developmental, and/or physical disability,  it is very difficult to earn a decent living, and for those who complain of the money they get from the government, a person who never worked in their lives can expect to receive as little as $721 a month. For Supplemental Security Income, that is the lowest amount each month  Social Security can give a person. If that person never worked, they do not qualify for Social Security Retirement or Supplemental Security Disability Income, so that $721 a month is many people with disabilities have coming to them. That's $8,652 a year. Can you live off of that? These people are forced to every day because, while many people with disabilities want to work, they are either too sick or impaired to work, or employers are not willing to take a chance on them.  For these reasons, many of my clients have a history of homelessness. The sad fact is that a great deal of people who are homeless have some sort of disability--usually a mental illness. Because of this, they do not know of the resources available to them, which means that they are not going to pantries and soup kitchens, and they are not allowed to stay in shelters because they are either unsafe or are unable to behave in an orderly manner and are turned away.  As for housing, unless they can find a group home or subsidized apartment building that caters to people with mental illness, they will find themselves waitlisted for 8-10 years to get on Section 8.

There are those who beg for money who are not even homeless. They have SSI checks and live in transient hotels, yet such hotels in Chicago can cost between $400 and $500 a month--just for a room. They are not even served meals, and up to 12 people are forced to share one washroom. That means, such people are only left with $200 or so for food, medications, and personal items. Therefore, panhandling supplements their income and keeps them from starving.  

If they are not disabled, they are ex-cons. Don't kid yourselves; the majority of people in prison are not there for violent crimes and were never a danger to society. They were imprisoned for drug possession, and they were not caught with enough to be considered dealers. Such people are released from prison and are told to stay out of trouble, yet when they try to get work to start a new life, the employers see that they were convicted of crimes and denied them jobs without asking follow-up questions. As a result, they eventually find themselves on the street as well.

Therefore, because of the political and socioeconomic climate of this country, the disabled find themselves unloved, and the ex-cons find themselves unforgiven--even though they paid their debts to society. Sure, if you give a panhandler money, some will indeed buy a 40 ounce of beer or a dime bag of crack with it, but most of them will buy a burger at McDonalds to nourish themselves or a cup of coffee to relieve themselves from the Chicago winter cold. Do not let a few bad apples make you abandon the whole tree.

I learned my lesson, and I try to keep a few extra dollars available to give to a person  who needs it. (In fact, the money I give comes from a penalty jar at home in which I drop a dollar every time I say a naughty word) If I have the money on me, and the panhandler is not smoking, drinking, obviously high or drunk, disorderly, or accosting, I will give them the money. There are those, by the way, who may appear under the influence, but this is merely a part of their illness. Even if the person I help will use the money to feed a habit, as my cousin would say, "That's between him (or her) and God."  Nevertheless, I always remind myself to give what I can because it is my Christian duty, as Jesus Christ says, "Whatever you do onto the least of these, you do onto me." Hence, when you look into the eyes of a needy person, you see Christ. Remember that when you see that person on the street begging for change. If anything, remember that that same person could easily be you.

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