For someone who works with a lot of homeless folks and low-income individuals, I’ve slowly grown less and less tolerant of the fellow on the freeway on-ramp holding the cardboard sign that says: “Need help, homeless and hungry.”
Sometimes, there’s a part of me that thinks I’m being heartless when I look the other way or roll my eyes or completely ignore the person’s existence. But I have a hard time believing that those who hold the cardboard sign are genuinely in as much need as they are to be standing on that street corner. I’ve seen some of our own clients stand on that street corner with the cardboard sign, hiding their face behind the cardboard, while they’re making a call on their cell phone. It’s a very confusing situation to watch.
The reality is that there are tons of resources available, especially when it comes to food. A huge part of my job is to link people to these resources. There are resources that will help people find affordable housing, medical care, mental health care, childcare, etc. There are tons of organizations that provide free clothes as well. In all honesty, the several of dollars you hand off to the man with the cardboard isn’t enough to find him housing or get him off the street — it’s only enough to feed him for that day.
Give a fish to a man; he has food for a day.
Teach a man to fish; he learns a skill for life. – Chinese Proverb
Maybe some folks quiet their conscience when they roll down their window and pass a few bucks to the cardboard man. But at the end of the day, your $1 donation has only contributed to rewarding this quick-fix behavior instead of putting it towards a longer term solution.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately one-fourth of the adult homeless population have a mental illness. Ideally, if you want to make a greater difference, donate money to mental health agencies and other organizations that are trained to work with the homeless population. That $1 (or more…) will go much farther when used to help fund programs that can actually connect these folks to services that they really need.
As painful as it is to wait for hours at the welfare office (trust me, I’ve sat there for 6 hours once with a client), there is financial support for homeless people and most people are eligible for some sort of compensation. Whether it’s food stamps or general assistance, they can actually receive much more than a few drive-by donors can at the street corner.
However, as idealistic as it would be to see the government and non-profit organizations help every homeless person, it’s really not going to happen if homeless individuals themselves don’t take a step in that direction. Sometimes it really is easier to pick up a piece of cardboard and scribble illegibly a cry for help. And if it actually yields some sort of income at the end of the day, they will keep doing it.
So, it’s your decision — do you give them the money, do you offer them food or do you point them in the direction of services that provide long term solutions?