Friday, January 15, 2010

Should You Give Money to Panhandlers?

 Is this man really in financial distress, or will he just spend the money on booze and drugs?  You have no way of knowing.  Donate money to a homeless shelter if you want to help him.  Handing out money to strangers might make you feel like you are better than the rest of us, but that's just sick thinking.

Prior to 1980, it was unusual to see someone begging for money on the streets in America.   We had "bums" back then, but they were a relatively invisible and small minority.  Most wandered from town to town, looking for a few dollars in exchange for odd jobs, or the occasional free meal.  They were not visible to most Americans.

Then, almost overnight, something weird happened in America. We suddenly had a "homeless problem."  It was as though someone turned on a switch, and suddenly every street corner had a beggar with a cup, asking for money.

What happened? And why? And should you give money to people begging on the streets? The answers to the first two questions are complicated and various. The answer to the third is more simple and direct - if you really want to help such people, contribute your money and/or your time to an organization that helps the "homeless."  Such contributions are far more effective and useful than handing out a dollar or two (or more) to an individual on the street.

Prior to 1980, in America, we had mental institutions in nearly every major city and even town. People who were unable to care for themselves or had drug or alcohol problems could commit themselves, or be involuntarily committed, to such institutions, where they would be cared for and treated.   If you were found muttering to yourself on the street and screaming obscenities at passers-by, chances are you would end up being involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

Many on the Left felt that such institutions were merely "warehouses" and moreover that the patients at such institutions were mistreated or over-medicated.  Books and movies, such as "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" illustrated the abuses that could take place in such institutional settings.

Many on the Right felt that such institutions were a drag on the economy, as they had to be paid for with tax dollars.  If only those institutions could be closed, we could cut taxes!

America's pharmaceutical companies had the ready answer - outpatient treatment with heavy meds. We could close or reduce the size of mental institutions by sending patients back out into the community, where they could be treated with medications on an outpatient basis.  Those on the Left signed on to this scheme as a "humanitarian" gesture.  Those on the Right felt it was a good way to cut taxes.  It was a rare show of bipartisanship!

The problem was, and is, that there were few places for these folks to go, once they were released. And since many of the medications that help make the mentally ill functional also have nasty side effects, many mentally ill people stop taking their medications, which in turn can cause problems for them and others.

It becomes a vicious cycle, as the patient stops taking the medications (and initially feels better) and then slowly starts to lose his grip - becoming paranoid and delusional. The patient is briefly institutionalized, where is he is medicated and gets back to "normal" and is then released - only to repeat the process again and again.  It is somewhat cruel, really.

It is estimated that of the nearly million or so people who are homeless on any given night, maybe 40-45% are mentally ill.   Thus, a large portion of our homeless population comprise people who need real help in the form of treatment for mental illness.

But what about the rest?  Well according to some studies, as much as 75% of the homeless population may have drug or alcohol problems.  Clearly, if this statistic is true, there is an overlap between the mentally ill population and the drug addicted population among the homeless.

The spike in drug abuse in the United States occurred at about the same time as our homeless problem manifested itself.  We all like to think of the 1960's as the era of free love, pot and LSD.   But it was the disco-era of the 1970's that lead to more widespread use of marijuana among the general population, as well as the increased use (and glamorization) of cocaine.   The introduction of "rock cocaine" (crack) occurred in the late 1970's and early 1980's, at about the same time our homeless epidemic started.  There is a causal connection between the two.

If these numbers are to be believed, however, it means that a relative minority of people who are homeless are actually there because of simple financial difficulties - losing a job, being evicted, health crises, and the like.   Few of the homeless are homeless as the result of a financial setback alone.

So what does this mean to you?  Well, for starters, the person panhandling at the street corner or traffic light is probably not "just evicted" or "just lost my job" as his cardboard sign indicates.   More likely than not, he has an alcohol and/or drug problem, and the money you give to him will not help feed his alleged four children or pay for a room for the night, but in fact buy more crack cocaine for his habit.

Those who have really lost their job or suffered a simple economic setback are the least likely to be begging on the streets - they are more likely to be looking for jobs or working with aid agencies to get back on their feet.  Begging for money is not the solution to such personal economic problems. People without drug, alcohol, and/or mental health issues are not likely to be the ones with the cardboard signs and beggar's cups.

You've probably seen the faux homeless beggars in your neighborhood - the person holding the sign that says "just evicted" standing on the street corner for years at a time (how can you be "just evicted" when your sign is clearly several months old?).   In some instances, people who are not homeless at all, have played upon the sympathy of tourists and the like in popular tourist areas to garner additional money simply by asking for it.  On a popular street corner or busy traffic intersection, you can literally make hundreds of dollars a day in begging, and there are those who have taken it up as a profession.

We had a lady at the Patent Office like that - she panhandled for years, with a cardboard sign saying "Just evicted, 4 children, please help!" and tourists visiting Washington DC from Iowa would giver her $5, $10, or even $20, saying to themselves, "Imagine that, here in the Nation's Capitol!  What has the world come to!" and then regale their friends in Ottumwa when they got back home about "how bad things are in DC, now that (fill in the blank) is President!"  Of course, you can't be "just evicted" for four years.  And when not panhandling, she did searches at the Patent Office, so she was employed.   But on a busy corner near the tourist hotels, she could clear $100 a hour sometimes.   So why not do it?

Giving money to people on the street only encourages such behavior . Giving money to a crack addict is not a sign of kindness, but is akin to giving him a loaded handgun with one ceremonial bullet in it. Are you really "helping" a crack addict by buying them more crack?

And yet people do just this, for various psychological reasons.  For one, it makes them feel better about themselves "I helped out someone less fortunate than me!" they can say.   It also helps alleviate their underlying guilt.  Many folks in this country have amazing wealth and really don't understand why they have it.  Giving a pittance away assuages this guilt.  I guess also that it is a way of making themselves feel superior to other human beings -the homeless person they give money to, as well as those who don't give to that person.

Handing out money to homeless people is just another way of saying "I'm better that YOU, because I CARE about the homeless!"  I saw a woman in a fur coat doing this once, while seated in her Jaguar.  She wins two ways here.   She's better than us (she thinks) because she drives a Jag and has a fur coat and is "rich."   And she's also better than us because she's socially conscious by giving money to a drug addict at a stop light.  Or so she thinks.  Most of us think she's a shallow bitch who caused us to sit through an extra cycle of the left turn lane light and cause a backup during rush hour.

Whatever the reason, the motivation rarely is a sound one, and is often a very sick one, from a psychological standpoint.  Altruism can be very evil, indeed.

And in many cases, the homeless don't want to be helped.  It can be a lifestyle they like.  I've had friends who have homeless relatives, usually drug addicts or alcoholics, who say they prefer the lifestyle they are in.  They might be living under a bridge in the Florida Keys, but they get drunk and stoned nearly every day - without ever having to work or worry about anything.  Granted, their life expectancy is short - but they say they really don't care.  When they try to "clean up" and go to a shelter, get a job, live in a halfway house, they are miserable (and let's face it, working a minimum wage job so you can live in a flophouse really does have to suck, compared to being messed up on drugs and booze all day long).

These sort of folks are the ones who panhandle - they want the money to continue their lifestyle.  Truly needy homeless folks are trying to get out of homelessness, and you can't do that by begging on the street.

So what can you really do to help the "homeless"?  Well, a far better approach than handing out money to strangers on the street is to donate money and/or time to your local homeless shelter, food bank, or other charity.  A cash donation to a charity is tax deductible.   This means that for every dollar you give to a charity, the real cost to you is only about 65 cents.  So you can give more to a legitimate charity than you could to people on the street, for the same amount of money.

For example, if you dole out $100 in handouts to people on the street, it will cost you $100, and it is not tax-deductible.   On the other hand, you could donate $135 to a homeless shelter and the net cost would be about $100 to you, after your tax deduction.  Which is a better way of helping the homeless, giving them $100 or giving them $135?  It seems like a very simple answer.

In addition, money handed out to individuals on the street will likely not go to buying food, shelter, or clothing, but instead be used to buy drugs and alcohol.  So long as a drug addict can get drugs and live in that lifestyle, there is little incentive to seek rehabilitation.  Not only are you not helping this person, you are enabling their self-destruction.

A homeless shelter, food bank, or other charity, on the other hand, will use your money to provide a warm place to sleep, food, clothing, job training, drug treatment, or other services which will actually help the people involved.   From that perspective, a dollar given to a legitimate charity will be equivalent to $10 or even $100 given to a panhandler on the street.

Donating time to such charities is also a good idea as well, as the cost to you is minimal.  But again, examine your real motives for doing so.   And such volunteer work may be more educational than you think.  One friend, working for a food bank, was chagrined to see that people were driving to the food bank and demanding that food be loaded into their brand new SUVs.  Not only that, they would drive around the block and then demand more food, this time in the name of a neighbor, family member, or friend.  Granted, such abuse of charities is the exception, not the norm, but it does illustrate the problems that can occur when you give things away for free - without determining need first.

And of course, it goes without saying that before you go around helping others, that you take care of yourself, first.  Charity is a fine and wonderful thing to do for society.  But your overarching obligation is to take care of yourself, so that you yourself do not become a burden to society. Before you give away your money, make sure you have set aside enough for your present needs and future needs as well - lets you add to the problem of homelessness yourself.