There is a strip mall five miles from my house which houses several of my favorite stores-Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, our grocery, my hair cutter Sharon at Supercuts, Petsmart — and for the last few years, whenever I pull out of the complex, I stare into the face of the same beggar.
He’s a young guy, no older than thirty, and on warm days, he wears a T-shirt and jeans with a trucker chain strung from his belt to his pocket. He stands in the grassy median between in-bound and outbound traffic, and he faces traffic as it pulls out of the lot. In the late afternoon, the traffic lights cast a shadow over him. His backpack is propped up beside him and he holds a sign “Homeless. Living in a tent. Every bit helps. Thanks.”
I see other beggars around town as well. Some look like they should be on the road to a Phish concert- a young couple with their dog who park themselves near the turn-in between McDonald’s and our favorite Indian restaurant. Some look stereotypically beggarly -the old toothless guy who stands near the I-75 off-ramp on the northbound side at Miller Rd.
I never know what to think. What I know is that street begging has become more common in the last few years, and I’m glad I don’t have to explain it to my now-27 YO son. Every bit of tenable sociological research I’ve read is clear: about 90% of beggars are indeed terribly poor and homeless. Due to massive cuts in my home state of Michigan’s mental health system under ex-Governor Engler which were continued under Snyder, many beggars are also mentally ill. They are not “employed” by beggar-pimps. They do not “drive better cars than I do” as some of my ‘friends’ continue to claim. The vast majority of the time, poor and homeless is not a scam. These people barely exist from week to week.
But I still wonder about this guy by Target. He’s young. I’ve chatted with him once or twice. He seems ‘normal.’ He appears healthy. So, what the hell is going on here that he won’t get a job? Did he drop out of high school? Then get a GED. Does he lack skills? Then get an entry level job, learn some stuff, work your way into some level of competency.
Is he utterly and totally lazy? Well, stacking boxes in an air-conditioned warehouse for 12 bucks an hour has got to be better than standing in the blazing August sun for 7 dollars a day. FYI-That’s the average beggar take, according to a University of Toronto study — regardless of what conservative talk show hosts like to say.
Clearly, one side of my brain says “What is wrong with these people? Get a damn job!” The other side of my brain is more compassionate, but just as befuddled.
I contribute time, money, and food to shelters and projects and food banks. I’ve helped housing projects build homes. I’ve volunteered for candidates who are sincere about helping the less-fortunate. I am a good person! I get that many of us are about a health crisis and one month away from living in our cars.
But I don’t give these beggars money or food. Not the spare change in my ashtray, or the bag of McD’s fries I can do without. I don’t give them the ClifBar I always have stashed in center console as my “emergency ration,” as then-twelve year old Aaron once tagged it.
I once mentioned to this young man that Solomon and Son roofers was advertising for helpers-no experience required, and my comment was met with stone-faced silence.
When Aaron was young, I remember a brief conversation about the homeless. I remember that I mentioned job loss, poor planning, drug and alcohol abuse, and living beyond one’s means as reasons.
But even then, I didn’t really get it — why healthy people would choose to beg instead of work — and I still don’t. I think I could have done a better job with that lesson if I had better understood the problem. When I worked with the Salem Housing Project, I made sure Aaron went along. When we volunteered at the Soup Kitchen, Aaron went along.
Since childhood, he’s been aware that as Jews, we are committed to Tikkun Olam; the commandment to heal the world, but I wonder, how would this discussion sound today? Aaron is not hard-hearted — like many in his generation, he is very concerned about the welfare of those around him — but as a dad I wonder, did I do enough to teach my kid that homelessness is rarely a preferred option when I waver on my feelings about it?
The healthy homeless have created their own kind of problem for which I don’t feel responsible. But their presence clouds a problem for which I do feel some ownership. According to Harvard professor Ronald Kessler, over 25% of America’s mentally ill are veterans of Mideast service. Many of our homeless, 33% according to the NAMI, are our military veterans. Veterans or not, the homeless who are mentally ill deserve better.
As parents, how do we have this conversation with our children? How do we explain homelessness and mental illness in a way that engenders compassion yet also retains the belief that personal responsibility is amongst the most admirable of characteristics?
I don’t have answers. We need to increase our outreach to the mentally ill, our vets, our homeless. Our support nets need to be beefed up, not eliminated. Healthcare needs to be free to all and accessible. Clearly, what we’re doing isn’t working. Let’s figure out a better, more humane, more dignified way.
As Al Pacino proclaimed, “something really wrong is goin’ on here!”
Yet, when I go to the grocery later today, I’ll still do a mental tap dance if that fellow is out by the median.