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Project Bumwad

So, my New Year Resolution this year is to give money to bums. Living in the Santa Monica/Venice area, there are many opportunities to interact with homeless people, many of whom are looking for a handout. This has made me uncomfortable, and I usually just avoid eye-contact and say "Sorry" or something like that.

But thinking about this behavior, I realized that while I might have some half-thought practical reasons not to give money to the homeless, that if I'm really honest with myself, it's more about being uncomfortable than anything else. Maybe there's some truth that anything that makes you feel uncomfortable is something you should face squarely and at least figure out why you're uncomfortable?

So I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of the homeless in L.A. have simply made a lifestyle choice - that they're not so much down on their luck as they are down on their ambition. Why work, when it's glorious every day and for $2.00 you can get a decent bottle of wine at Trader Joe's? The few days of rain or cold a year are a small price to pay for avoiding the tedium of turning up 9-to-5, am I right? Add in to this a basic antipathy for anyone who can't manage their addictions. And maybe I suspect that our local vagrants aren't really in trouble so much as they're shiftless.

It was different in Philly - where if you're homeless through the Winter, you've got a serious problem. No one would choose that, that's a bunch of folks who are afflicted by some kind of mental illness, addiction, or serious bad fortune. But here in CA? The consequences of homelessness *seem* less dire, and so maybe these people aren't, or so I reasoned, as deserving of charity or assistance?

But that's a theory completely unsubstantiated by experiment or research. It's the kind of story that Conservatives tell themselves about people in need, in order to excuse not helping, and the negative feelings that come when one realizes one is not, in fact, very generous after all. And I don't want to be that guy - the heartless skinflint who praises Jesus but does no charitable work and keeps all his wealth for himself. (You know those guys, they're basically running the nation...)

So I resolved I would always give money to homeless people that I encountered in L.A., and whenever possible, I'd ask them what their story is. So far I've had relatively few interactions, but err, kind of already failed.

My first interaction was with a short, middle-aged black guy named Charles outside the Macy's at the Fox Hills mall. He asked for some help, so I stopped and talked to him. I could smell weed, which I presume was coming from him. He explained that he'd lost his job and was on welfare, but needed money to get through the week until his welfare check game on Friday. I gave him some money and asked him if he'd be okay. He said he would. On my way out he was still there, and he smiled and said, "I already got you, thank you and God bless."

The other day I drove right by a young white woman who was standing by the side of the road with a sign that said, "Need money to help my dog." She appeared to be in good health, relatively clean and wearing clothing that wasn't too much worse for the wear. Traffic whisked my right by her, so I guess it's not too bad that I couldn't stop, but it's still not quite up to my resolution.

This morning, filling up the car at the gas station, an older white guy with a beard worthy of ZZ Top sort of appeared out of nowhere, and asked I could spare him my change. I said sure, and gave him all the money I had in my pocket, which was about three bucks. I asked "So what's happened, that you're wandering around looking for help." He told me he lost his job after he went blind, and that he'd had an operation on one eye but not the other and still couldn't see very well. He too invoked the blessing of God on me. I gather that's sort of a de rigeur response when one is given a few bucks. After he did so, i swear he disappeared like Batman - I have no idea where he got himself to, he was there one minute, and gone the next.

So by the end of the year, I'll bet I have a better idea of why people in the area are homeless, or at least of why they SAY they're homeless. I'm not sure if I should explain about my whole goal to the people I meet. I kind of want to take their picture and get their names and story and stuff...but I also feel like that's making it all about me, and that's not my intent at all. So do I just ask them some questions, and take it at face value? Or do I get a more honest answer if I explain how I'm trying to look at root causes and stuff? Or am I being a jerk presuming I'm not necessarily getting an honest answer?

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
blanchemains
Jan. 14th, 2012 06:24 am (UTC)
I don't think you are a jerk for assuming that you aren't being told the truth. Unfortunately, I have been dealing with a fair few mental patients on the job and, well... Yeah, they tell a lot of stories. And, frankly, I think that a huge majority of the homeless around Los Angeles are mentally ill. Furthermore, I believe that a whole lot of the substance abuse that is clearly rampant in the homeless population is self medication.

So why all the stories and lies? One, I think there is stigma and shame attached to the whole situation. Two, addicts will say anything and do anything to get their fix. So, whatever they think will motivate you to part with your cash (or, in our case, make with the narcotics) is what they will tell you. Three, when a person is having a hard time telling what is real and what isn't, he or she may actually believe that the lie being spun is absolutely true.

What really breaks my heart about dealing with the mentally ill is the feeling I get that they are well aware that they are difficult, unreasonable, delusional and many other unpleasant things. And let's face it, a lot of homeless people have families who just couldn't deal with them anymore.

I have learned the hard way that when dealing with an addict or a drunk you are really dealing with two people, one of which is ruthlessly manipulative in serving the addiction.
glamour_junkie
Jan. 14th, 2012 07:08 am (UTC)
Blanchemains is eloquent and I bow to thier superior experience in this. I totally agree with the two-people comment, since I do know a few people with substance abuse problems.

The statement you made specifically about "I kind of want to take their picture and get their names and story and stuff...but I also feel like that's making it all about me, and that's not my intent at all" is unfortunately true. I've noticed this a couple of times recently... I've seen photographers or writers (mostly the former) doing photo essays or blog posts and it turns into some sort of credential-building portfolio piece. A sort of "I've been in the gutters, I have street cred" thing. Also a potential badge to wear in the "look how I'm making a difference" reputation game. This doesn't always sit well with me. I'm personally a coward about talking to people who are potentially mentally ill and could become violent because of a couple of experiences I or people close to me have had, but I regular donate money and goods to shelters because it's what I can do. I don't have to do a painting series, though, because it's then becoming about me, not them. Bleargh. It's a tough thing to know where the line is. Good on you for making an effort to understand.

Edited at 2012-01-14 07:08 am (UTC)
daogre
Jan. 16th, 2012 08:56 pm (UTC)
I think it's totally fine to ask them if you can take their picture/hear about their situation, but I'd ask them about it AFTER you giving them some money. I think the story is 90% simpathy plea to get some cash from you, and if you give someone what you've got and ask them afterwards, then it's not like you're being a dick by asking them what happened to them. I think you need to be sure you phrase it right and are careful, as blanchemains said plenty of homeless are mentally unstable and I've interacted with some who have threatened violence or been obviously malicious, but I think in general you should be fine and there's nothing wrong with asking people what their deal is.

I think if you explain your goal you shouldn't include "I'm trying to prove that the homeless are making a lifestyle choice", but I think it's fine to say you're doing a writing project trying to find out what has happened that resulted in people being homeless. People generally open up for people who are genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say, doubly so for the mentally disturbed who are used to people walking right past them.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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