Panning Panhandlers

Today’s post is about panhandling.  In that spirit, consider subscribing to my SubscribeStar page.  $1 a month gets you exclusive access to posts every Saturday, as well as special posts throughout the year.

As a Christian, I struggle with how to deal with the homeless.  On the one hand, Jesus makes it pretty clear in Matthew 25:40 that whatever we do to the least, we likewise do to Him.  There’s also that verse—more scripturally-literate readers can assist with the exact verse in a comment—about some poor people being Jesus in disguise.

On the other hand, homeless people are (often) mentally ill (see below), (potentially) dangerous nuisances that extort you for cash.  The economy of it is simple:  the homeless person will leave you in peace if you just toss a few quarters into his cup.  Some have more elaborate cons—the guy who perennially needs $10 to buy gas to get home—but it all amounts to an impromptu shakedown.

The classic response is to buy them a burger, but that’s a lengthy process, and one that your sudden societal burden will assuredly balk at, but that takes up a good deal of time.

I do at least appreciate some feigned earnestness, like the night I was filling up my car and a dude pulled up on a moped, asking for some food.  In the world of the homeless, the one-moped man is king, but I told him I’d let him follow me to a nearby Dollar General to pick up some staples.

It was a bitterly cold night, so I bought him some gloves in addition to the bread, sandwich meat, and chips.  He wanted to buy cookies, to which I said, “C’mon, that’s a luxury item—I don’t even buy those for myself” (which is true—I pretty much buy bread, peanut butter, and eggs).

But I digress.  Compassionate readers may balk at the apparent callousness of my tone, but let’s face it:  in the United States, virtually no one—to the point of statistical irrelevance—is homeless for lack of opportunity, especially in the Trump economy.

John Derbyshire talked about a mnemonic device he learned from a friend who worked with the homeless in Great Britain in the 1970s:  CATO-1234.  To quote from Derb at length:

“C” stands for “Crazy.” I apologize for that: It’s not a very sympathetic way to speak about people with mental-health issues. This was forty years ago, when we spoke more bluntly. The “C” of “CATO” goes with the “4” of “4321”: Forty percent of the homeless are afflicted with mental-health issues.

Next, “A.” That stands for “Addicts,” and it goes with the “3.” Thirty percent of homeless people are drug addicts. Alcoholics may be in there, too—I forget.

Next after “C” and “A” comes “T.” That stands for “Tramps.” This word isn’t much used in American English; my friend and I were living in England. I think the nearest equivalent here is “hobos.”

This population of homeless, the “T’s”—who of course are twenty percent—these are people who like living on the streets. They’re not crazy and they’re not drug addicts. Homelessness is their chosen lifestyle. They’re the happy homeless.

Finally the “O’s” at ten percent. “O” stands for “Out of luck.” These street people are not crazy, they’re not addicts, and they don’t want to live on the streets. They just have no choice.

These are people you or I would recognize as normal, but they’ve had some terrible reversal of fortune. Lost their job, lost their house, wife left them and took the kids, no family to fall back on for support. It happens. There but for the grace of God …

In other words, 90% of the homeless are in that situation by choice or the inability to do anything else.  That’s a strong argument in favor of mental health facilities, and against giving loose change to vagabonds.

Some further evidence:  The Blaze has a piece, which inspired today’s post, about a man who offered a panhandler a job—at a Bernie Sanders-approved $15 an hour!—and the panhandler refused, angrily.

So the contractor did the reasonable thing and showed up with a sign urging motorists not to give the panhandler any money, noting that he’d offered the shiftless fellow a job.  This trolling, naturally, set off the panhandler, who still managed to get a handout from one motorist.  That prompted the best line from the whole article:

“You can’t shut me down, brother,” the panhandler was heard saying after his panhandling victory.

In all seriousness, we should count our blessings; as Derb said, “There but for the grace of God [go I].”  The homeless deserve to be treated humanely.

However, it does no one any good to pander to them—or to romanticize their experience.  They represent a nuisance and a threat to public safety if not addressed.  We can approach the problem with compassion and charity, but I shouldn’t be charged a fee for taking a walk, or emotionally manipulated into coughing up hard-earned cash.

Give to reputable organizations that help the homeless.  Give away food and clothes if you have them to give.  But don’t be stupid.  As the contractor noted:

[I]f drivers stop handing cash through their cracked windows, panhandlers will leave.

“I can’t have my 13-year-old daughter and my wife driving with their windows up and being berated the entire time if [panhandlers] don’t get money,” he noted to the station, adding that he hopes panhandlers will want a hand up more than a handout.

Pray for the homeless, but keep top eye open.

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