I live in a suburb of Seattle, a big city with a big homelessness problem. When I say problem, I don’t mean that the homeless people themselves are a nuisance and we need to get rid of them, but rather that we need to get rid of the homelessness so that everyone has a roof over their heads. I believe that a safe place to sleep is a right, not a privilege.
Side note: for the record, the term “homeless” isn’t great. First of all, family and love makes a home, so technically they are “houseless” but even that doesn’t fit, because a condo, apartment, or even co-dwelling may fit the bill for those who have no place safe to sleep. Plus, there are a lot of people out there who technically may have a safe place to sleep but are basically destitute as far as food, clothing, clean water, electricity, access to healthcare, etc. So it’s better to use more culturally sensitive terms like “transitional”, “poverty-striken”, “in-transit”, or something, but for ease of writing this post, I’m going to go with the term “homeless”.
I’ve had lots of conversations with people about what they do when they see people asking for money on the street. What to do?
- One of my family members walked from their office building to Pike Place Market for lunch every day, and said if he gave even one quarter to every single person who asked him for money, he would literally give away his entire paycheck.
- One of my friends worried that the cash she gave would just be spent on alcohol and that she was only enabling them.
- One of my family members expressed frustration that this particular homeless individual is in the same spot all day every day for the last few years, and if they would have spent that time looking for a job or getting job training, they’d probably be more stable by now.
- One of my friends was baffled that the homeless individual had manicured fake nails and an iPhone.
- One of my family members remarked that there are a lot of programs available in our area to get people back on their feet, and if the homeless person they saw would take advantage of those programs they wouldn’t have to beg for handouts.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about these concerns, because honestly I agree with a lot of them. But I also know that homelessness and the cycle of homelessness is a huge issue and just handing someone a couple bucks isn’t going to change their day/week/month/life enough to actually improve their situation.
I have to say here, my heart used to be much harder about this. My empathy has grown in this area because of a few things: the Holy Spirit helping me become more loving (a life-long goal, obvi), the book Same Kind Of Different As Me, the book Lost December, and the movie The Pursuit Of Happyness. All three of those made me realize how close we all are to hitting hard times, how human everyone is, and how tough it is to break the cycle once you’re down.
For instance, let’s say you drop off a resume. Where did you print that resume? What address is on the resume? What phone number can they contact you at to set up an interview? Okay, so you got an interview. What do you wear to it? Maybe you have a nice outfit but that’s what you wore to drop off the resume…will they notice? So you ace the interview and get the job. What do you wear to your first day of work? If they didn’t notice your only outfit before, they’re sure to now! When do you get your first paycheck? MAYBE two weeks in, if you’re lucky? What do you do until then? What are you bringing for lunch every day? You don’t have time to head to the soup kitchen on your 30 minute break, and you get off work too late to line up for a bed/meal at the shelter. So for two weeks, are you eating nothing and sleeping in your car? Then once you do get paid, where does that small check go to? Do you use it for first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit on an apartment? It’s probably not enough money for that. Plus, the apartment will want references of your last place of residence, what will you provide them? Or are you spending your first paycheck on food? A few more pieces of work clothes to rotate through?
Anyways, it’s just really really easy, easier than we think, to get into a transient situation, and very very difficult to get out of it.
One resource that I really love is a street newspaper we have in Seattle called Real Change. Basically, it’s a monthly newspaper that is published and distributed by Seattle’s homeless. They buy each paper for 60 cents, and resell it for $2. They keep 100% of the paper cost plus any tips they get. If they attend an orientation they receive their first five papers free to get them started. Plus, I regularly read the paper, and it’s very well written. In fact, I just bought one on Thursday and I’ve already finished reading it!
Real Change helps break the cycle of homelessness because it’s a way to make actual money by working hard, a way to gain job experience, and a way for the public to help end someone’s homelessness while not giving a free handout or enabling drug and alcohol use. Real Change provides publishing jobs to vendors who are successfully working hard in the program. It is just a really great program, and my husband Chris and I are proud to be monthly donors and regular readers.
It’s not just Seattle though! There are a bunch of cities around the country that have a similar “street paper” model. Here they all are!