Learning about the homeless – February 10, 2009

For people reading this blog entry that have not read my previous entries on the homeless, I encourage you to read Homeless Project Background. It will give you some background on my project. Briefly, I have made a commitment to give $20 each week to a homeless person and minimally ask their name and where they are from.

I have had both positive and negative feedback on my project. The following is a bit of the negative. The police and non-profits serving the homeless discourage giving money directly to the homeless for two main reasons. The first reason from the police is it encourages the homeless to hang in the area where they get money and to continue to commit crimes in the neighborhood. The second reason from the non-profits is that getting them to professionally run organizations is best and giving them money does not encourage them to seek help.

I agree with both reasons. I do plan on continuing with my project against their advice. There is too much for me to learn and the downside is not enough to discourage me away. I will be giving a donation to a non-profit organization that serves the homeless at the end of this year and to a foundation supporting the police department. I do want to show my respect for both types of organizations. I guess it is also my way of asking for forgiveness.

I am still behind on my quota for $20 a week. Last week I gave Jane from Jamestown, North Dakota $20. She is a regular in my neighborhood who just quietly sits at the edge of the Longs parking lot. She rarely has a sign asking for money. She just sits there. I was surprised at how nice of a smile she had when we chatted for a minute. Her clothes were fairly clean and her face was very weathered.

I also gave Shelia from Eureka, California $20. I was walking my dog at 5:15AM. Sheila was hanging in the front porch of small store. She had put up cardboard barriers around herself. It formed sort of a room. The walls were about 3 feet high. She was sitting up on the store ledge. One hand was on her shopping cart, the other holding a cigarette. I walked past her at first and then thought I would turn around and do my ritual. I felt a bit like I was intruding in her space when I walked up to the cardboard walls. I asked her name. She looked at me with great suspicion. I sensed she thought she was going to get harassed as I assume she often is. So I said my name was Mark and asked if she could use a few bucks. I reached out with the $20 folded up in my hand. She reached out and received the money. Again I asked her name. She said, “Sheila.” I asked where she was from. She said, “Eureka, California.” I told her I was from Chicago.

As I walked away, I wondered at what time she leaves in the morning so the store employees don’t see her. Certainly they would shoo her away themselves or call the police. Somehow I feel that Jane hanging out at the edge of the Longs parking lot is more acceptable than Sheila setting up house on the sidewalk blocking the entrance to a small store. In a previous posting, I remarked that if we are always shooing the homeless out of our neighborhood where would they live? If not our neighborhood, than whose? Meeting Jane and Sheila taught me a great lesson. For me, acceptable places for homeless to hang are defined in terms of feet, not neighborhoods. Jane and Sheila’s hangouts were about 200 feet apart, but both in my neighborhood. I wonder if Longs would like for Jane to move 200 more feet away.

NIMBY (Not in my back yard) has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I would not be comfortable with either Jane or Sheila hanging out in my front yard. If they were sitting on the curb in front of my house, hard to say. If they were sleeping on the side walk in front of my house, again hard to say. If they were at the edge of my property on the curb, probably that would be OK. If a friend was down and out on their luck, I would invite them in my home. I have many questions still.

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