January 13th, 2012

monkey pirate

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?
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