Thursday, February 26, 2015

Panhandler Guilt

I lived in a high poverty neighborhood for twenty years. I had lots of experience with panhandlers.

When we barbecued the aroma would draw the dumpster divers in our alley. They'd lean over the fence and ask if we "had anything we could give." We offered sandwiches instead of cash. 

When people came knocking at the door of an evening, we listened politely to the sad stories. Most of the time we just said "We can't help you."

About nine o-clock one night a woman begged cash for her infant's medicine. What if it were true? We offered to go with her to the pharmacy to pay. But then she insisted she just couldn't inconvenience us like that. 

Living in the boonies, poverty doesn't get in my face very often. I'm out of practice dealing with it.

photo from Nolan Dalla

I'm conflicted when a scammer accosts me. I don't want to pay for somebody's destructive habit--but what if they really do have a need? I vacillate. Sometimes I'll give a guy with a sign a couple of bucks if it's convenient. Usually, it's easier to pass right by.

Just last week I was at one of those looks-like-a-village shopping centers. Off to my left an African-American mom and three kids threaded between parked cars toward me. The kids were clean, dressed for the weather in good-looking jackets and hats, but Mom looked rough. The oldest son, about twelve, intercepted us and delivered a practiced spiel about the shelter, and so many hours before they could return, and the next check... I was lost. And very uncomfortable.

 I looked over his shoulder and told the mother I wouldn't give her cash.

 "Are you hungry?" I asked the boy standing in front of me.


I took them to Subway to buy sandwiches. She dropped back with the young kids, hung around the door, and made no show that they would sit down and eat. The boy was polite, ordered two sandwiches and I paid. He thanked me before I left. Mother did not. 

Yeah, I know Jesus would not have expected thanks, but I did.  

Ten minutes later I saw them walk past the restaurant window where we sat.  They weren't carrying a Subway bag, but were carrying a bag from the barbecue restaurant across the street. Had they even eaten the sandwiches I bought?  I bristled at the idea.

By the time we left, the mother had stopped a younger woman who engaged her in extended conversation. I hoped the new target was giving her a piece of my mind, since I'd been too timid to do it. 

I'm still puzzled by my response. Was I too gullible? Too judgmental? Too quick to buy my way out of feeling guilty? Did I see her as a victim or a victimizer? 

I am also doing a slow burn about the way she was using her son, teaching him to beg for her. 

I know poverty is complex. And our skewed societal priorities don't address the problem adequately. We can afford to fill a football stadium when seats cost over a thousand bucks each; but, we can't give this woman counseling, drug rehab, and job training so she can take care of her family? Perhaps she's not willing to take advantage of the help that is available.  Either way, she's fallen through some big cracks and taken her kids down with her.

Her behavior made me angry. Her kids left me sad. 

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