BRATTLEBORO — Many people are upset about the panhandlers in town these days. Some people presume this is a result of laziness on the part of these folks. Some moral defect, perhaps.
I have some thoughts about this and some questions to ask. I hope you will consider these with an open mind.
We are all dealt a different hand of cards in the game of life. Have you seen the other person's hand?
Do you know what they have been given, what they have experienced in life, what resources they have internally and externally? Perhaps they are not the best poker player or they have no aces in the hole.
How do you know this homeless person hasn't already applied for many jobs, held some jobs, lost them for reasons perhaps none of us can comprehend?
How do you know this person hasn't already applied for housing?
Perhaps this person has family nearby but, for complicated reasons, that family doesn't have the resources or ability to take this person in. How much judgment do you need to add to the already-burdensome life of this person and their family?
It's easy for us to say, “If I were John Smith, I'd do such and such.” The fact is, you are not John Smith, and no matter what, you will be you. You are coming from your own experience. John Smith is John Smith.
Someone may appear healthy, but you don't know what health issue they are dealing with, physically or mentally or emotionally.
You can't understand what life has been like for that person, what demons that person is battling.
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We'd all like to think that somehow there is help out there for all situations, that social services will take care of this.
There is some help, to some degree. There are people in this community working to make things better to the best of their abilities.
But do you know that there is a long wait list for the Groundworks Shelter? Do you know that some people find the temporary shelter unsafe? Imagine yourself there.
And do you actually think that someone who has been on the streets does not know of the meals available at the church? These places provide one meal a day. What about breakfast and dinner?
Imagine what it is like to have no money to buy socks, Band-aids, a used backpack when yours breaks - whatever.
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And let's back up a step. From conversations I have heard, “outcasts” - for that's how we generally treat people on the margins - are lumped together. Homelessness and panhandling and crime and addiction are often talked about as if they are a package deal.
Let's sort this out.
Not all homeless people are addicts. Not all panhandlers are homeless. Many addicts are neither homeless nor panhandlers. And you can pretty much bet that the people who are breaking into cars at night or houses during the day are not the panhandlers you see downtown. There is a difference between stealing and asking for help.
You have a choice to give or not to. Some days and in some situations, I hand someone some small bills or food. Other times I don't.
The vast majority of people asking for help are not aggressive. I've never encountered a difficultly myself (though I hear some people have).
If I think someone is an addict, I am less likely to give something, but someone else might feel differently.
Do you think people would choose to be addicts or homeless or panhandling? There are homeless people panhandling in the brutal cold of January. Do you think someone would choose this life if they saw other viable choices?
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If you are uncomfortable, just think of how uncomfortable it must be to have no place to go at night and to have to ask for help regularly.
Perhaps we could all examine what this discomfort is really about. Are we afraid we are just a step away from homelessness? Or are we feeling guilty about our privilege?
Do you think people's worth is dependent on how much they work? If so, then the elderly and children and people with disabilities must be worthless - and also people who have inherited money, because they didn't work for it. You could add to this list the folks whose inheritance depends on the slave labor of others.
The list goes on.
And on to specifics. I saw in a Facebook group that a panhandler was being criticized for having a cell phone, as if this somehow pointed to luxury. Some kind person might have given a phone to this person, or added that person to their service for $15 a month.
Just because someone has a phone for $15 a month doesn't mean they can afford $600 or so a month for an apartment. Please notice the illogic. A phone is as essential as shoes are to a homeless person.
Do you want to deny this thread of connection when so many other connections and comforts have been lost?
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We can all choose compassion over fear. I'm pleading for a little compassion here.
Consider that perhaps we are all doing the best we can. This doesn't mean that we might make a change tomorrow or in half an hour, but given who we are and what we know and have, we are all doing the best we can each moment. You, me, and the person who is asking for help.
I met a woman from another country who said that in her village, if someone committed suicide or homicide, it was seen as a village problem, not a family problem, not an individual problem - rather, it was seen as a village problem. Everyone in the whole village would get together and discuss how they had failed this person.
In our village of Brattleboro, we act as if panhandlers themselves are the problem, as if panhandlers are a nuisance. Let us notice that perhaps homelessness is the problem or, in some cases, addiction, and that panhandling is a symptom of a number of problems in our society.
We might feel uncomfortable and want the problem to go away, but we could view this differently.
Where have we as a village failed? How can we create a world that includes people now on the margins, a world that can address their needs and their contributions?
How can we see that us is them?
We are in some ways a cruel and rude society. How can we bring kindness into the picture, or at the very least not blame the folks on the outskirts while not adding to the rudeness of it all?
Really, who are we to judge? We can choose to respect people no matter what, realizing we do not know their full story.
We can all imagine this person is our family member. We could realize that under certain circumstances, we could be that person.