Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Your Brother's Keeper

Give a man a pair of shoes, he has crack money for the night.  Teach a man to be a cobbler, and, well, he'll likely still be unemployed and homeless.  Particularly if he has mental health and drug problems.

A recent viral video (which are as evil as forwarded e-mails) shows a NYC Cop giving a homeless man a pair of $100 shoes.  It was a touching gesture, but if you have ever dealt with the homeless, you knew in advance how it would play out.

The media dutifully reported that the next week, the man's shoes were nowhere to be seen.  And people speculated whether he traded them for drugs, took them back to the store for a refund, or merely hid them because begging on the street is more effective if you are barefoot (hey, people will stop and buy you shoes, right?  It works).

The man's family was contacted, and they said they haven't had much to do with him, and that he chooses to be homeless.

That was the cue for the self-rightious to chime in.

"How dare they!" one bombastic columnist opines, "They have an obligation to help their Father!"

And as I have noted before, such comments are less than helpful, on a number of grounds.  We don't know the backstory on this, but I suspect these kids did not have a jolly childhood filled with picnics in the park and bedtime stories.   In fact, it may have been a horror show.  Growing up with a mentally ill parent is no Swiss picnic, let me tell you!

So, we are all-too-ready to stand in judgement of the children, but of course, the homeless guy gets a "free pass" as we all know that the poor are saintly and blessed and in fact, often have supernatural powers.  And the homeless are like superheros, compared to regular poor.  They are Mother Theresa on steroids!

Not exactly.  The statistics are pretty grim.  Most homeless people, as I have written about before, are mentally ill, have drug problems, or both - particularly the "chronically" homeless.  These are folks who become homeless and stay that way, until they die.  And often, they confess they prefer the freedom of living on the street, compared to the struggle of living in a shelter, working at a job, and trying to pay their own way.

You can make a staggering amount of money, panhandling - enough to keep you in cheap beer and crack, if you are astute enough to target tourists, and have a pathetic sign or no shoes.

But the bombastic blow-hards will have none of this.  Homeless people are victims, even as they victimize others, by stealing from your car and harassing ordinary citizens.   We need to feel sorry for the homeless!  And people need to care for their homeless relatives!

Well, with regard to the former, I have to agree.  But in terms of "taking care" of homeless people, we need to discipline them.  When you apply for welfare or other assistance, or a free meal, or a place to stay, you are basically saying, "I can't even run my own life."   Arguing that we need to provide the homeless with "dignity" or "control over their own lives" is nonsense - these are people with no dignity and when given control of their own lives, make horrifically bad decisions.

Many in the GOP support drug-testing for welfare recipients.  Good Idea.   If you want to do drugs, well, get a job to pay for them.  The idea that we should support (enable) people on drugs is just a bad idea.   And if someone is mentally ill and refuses to take their medication and wants to sit in the subway all day long and piss on the floor and scream at people, this is not a first amendment right.   We need to institutionalize such folks, involuntarily.  They need help, and they need someone to tell them what to do - because left to their own devices, they do not do well.  Often they hurt themselves - or others.

If they can demonstrate they can support themselves, fine.  Welcome to civilization, like the rest of us.  But I don't think that throwing money at the homeless and just letting them do "whatever" is a good idea.  Because "whatever" ends up being a detriment to the rest of society.  And if you don't believe me, ask anyone who works with the homeless.

You could debate me on that, if you want to.   But I am not convinced that handouts that enable street living and drug use are a good thing - and not much you can say will convince me otherwise.

But the idea that family members have to sacrifice their own lives to "help" an insane or drug-addicted family member?

Are you fucking crazy?

If you have a mentally ill sibling, parent, or child, or one who has addicted to drugs, I feel for you.  Because I have been through this - with mentally ill parents and siblings, as well as siblings and other relatives who are addicted to drugs.  And I have had a number of friends who were mentally ill or drug abusers - girlfriends, boyfriends, roomates, and the like.

It ain't easy.  In fact, it's damn near impossible.  Why is this?  Simply because most of us are not equipped to deal with mentally ill or drug-addicted people.  You cannot cope with someone who is irrational, who steals from you, abuses you mentally, physically, sexually, emotionally, financially, or all of the above.

The best thing you can do, in most cases, is just leave.  Move on with your life, and make your own life.  It is like those horror movies where they call the babysitter and say, "We've traced the call!  Get out of the house!  NOW!"   There is nothing to be gained by sticking around and being someone's punching bag - and that is what you get when you try to "help" a drug-addicted daughter or a mentally ill sibling.

As I recounted in another posting, I went to a counselor once, when a relationship with a mentally ill person was not going well.  I was not aware how mentally ill they were!  But the counselor basically said to me, "Get out of this relationship - it is toxic!"  I had neither the resources or faculties to cope with someone with major psychological or drug problems.  Few, if any people do.

And how did I end up in such relationships (plural)?  Simple.  I was raised with crazy people, and assumed that mental illness and drug abuse were "norms".  They are not.  And often, for family members of the mentally ill or drug-addicted, it is a major life accomplishment to break free of the cycle of co-dependency and addiction.  And as a reward, some blowhard columnist who hasn't had to deal with such things, takes a piss all over them.  Some fun.

So I understand completely why the children of this homeless man appear to the uninformed, ignorant, and casual observer to be callous and cold-hearted.   They are smart enough to realize that they can't "fix" Dad and make him better -that handing him money is not going to "help" him, at least for very long.  And that the best thing they can do, for society, is not to help one homeless man, but try to salvage their own lives - and that of their children - to minimize the impact of what surely was a horrific childhood.

Self-preservation is not always "selfish" - you have your own responsibilities to society at large, and one of those is taking care of and supporting yourself.  Trying to "rescue" someone else is a sure-fire recipe for destroying your own life.

Many folks have pointed to one passage in the Bible as saying that we are obligated to help out others in this way.  However, I am not sure the passage hasn't been misinterpreted - in a big way.
"And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?"  Genesis 4:9 King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
The key to understanding this quote, is to understand the context.  Cain had just murdered Abel, and God was saying, "Hey Cain, wassup?  Where's your bro?" knowing full well what had transpired (God sees all, right?).  He was just messing with Cain.  Playing him.

For some reason, Christians take this out of context (a murder scene) and make it into a parable about how we are all suppose to help one another.  And I guess not murdering people is probably a good start, at least for Cain.

The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is fully of fucked-up stories like this.  God commands Abraham to kill his son, and then says, "Just kidding!  I was testing ya!  Ha-ha!  Oh, wait, you didn't actually go and do it, did you?"

It amazes me that people look to this nonsense for "guidance" on anything.

Yes, we should all be kind to one another.  And we should offer people who are "less fortunate" a path upward, even if their lack of fortune is due to their own malfeasance, poor choices, or intentional self-destruction - which it often is.

But being "kind" is just that - being kind, not evil.  And when we are altruistic for selfish reasons (so we can proclaim our good deeds to others and enhance our own self-worth) we are not being kind at all.  And bombastic columnists, who declare their own self-righteousness and decry the acts of others, fall into this category.  "Look at me!" they cry, "I care about the less-fortunate!   I wrote a column condemning those who don't care as I do!"  They do so much, yet we don't appreciate them.

And if our "kindness" allows a drug addict to remain a drug addict, is it really kindness?  If you hand $20 to a "homeless" person, chances are, they are going to buy alcohol or drugs with it, not food and shoes.  Are you really being kind, or just handing him a loaded handgun?

A better approach is to donate your time or money to a homeless shelter or other agency that helps people move from poverty - not enables them to remain in it.   Most homeless shelters provide resources for the homeless to pull themselves up from the gutter.  But they also have rules - strict rules - on behavior.  And that is one reason many homeless people prefer the streets, unless it gets really, really cold.  No one will tell them they can't do drugs on the street, or stop them from stealing from one another, or shouting obscenities at passers-by.

And sometimes, that is the ultimate kindness - being firm, setting boundaries, enforcing rules.   It is a kindness sorely lacking in our culture today.

UPDATE:  It is now reported that this "homeless" man has an apartment in the Bronx, paid for by the VA.  And likely he qualifies for food stamps, an "ObamaPhone", medicaid, and a host of other benefits.

But of course, we cannot "afford" to institutionalize the mentally ill, right?

And of course, income from begging is not reported income, so it does not affect your qualification for other benefits.

I hate to say it, but we are enabling a lifestyle here - making it easy for people to make bad choices.