Homelessness plagues me.
I don’t know how to respond to it. Sure, I can give money to a charity, support causes and talk about needed policy changes, but this plague is more personal and individual.
Daily, I’m presented with the face of homelessness: people sitting on the side of the road begging for money – sometimes with signs and sob stories, sometimes not.
So what do I do?
Some days, I roll down the window and hand them some cash. Some days I don’t. But why sometimes and not others? Often it comes down to whether I have cash in my pocket. In a debit-card world, I’m a cash-poor man. But other times, it’s because I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to do.
If I give money to every homeless person I see, I’ll be poorer, but will they be better off?
What are they doing with the money? Is the cash helping in any practical way? These are the questions that lead me to keep my wallet to myself at times.
I once wrote about people I saw begging at the on- and off-ramps of Interstate 540 at Creedmoor Road in North Raleigh. They sometimes came from as far as downtown to beg. One guy I talked to said it was because he was hassled less there. So be it. But when the signs of homelessness are so visible they reach the interstates, the problem becomes more pressing.
So I sent emails to some area residents to get their views. Did they give money to people they saw begging? Why or why not? And did they worry about what those people were going to do with the cash?
Former Raleigh resident Cheralyn Lambeth, who lives in Charlotte, said she worries a lot about where the money goes.
“I always feel compassion for the homeless people I see on the streets. It’s truly sad that someone’s life has come to that,” she said. “However, I also know that, more often than not, many of the people begging for money on the streets are con artists … which definitely makes me reluctant to give them money.”
Lambeth wasn’t the only one worried about how the money would be spent. Others shared my concerns. And the issue that the person asking for money is a con artist is a common one.
Drew Bridges, owner of The Storyteller’s Bookstore in Wake Forest said that appearance makes a big difference for him.
“If the person in question does seem truly down and out, dirty, disheveled and disabled, I give them something,” he said. “If the person looks more able-bodied and healthy, I just say ‘sorry’ and keep on walking.”
But Bridges knows that’s not the best way to make his decision.
“I’m always aware that I may be making an unfair judgment based on my blink-of-the-eye assessment,” he said.
It’s a difficult thing. How do you know the true motivation of the person who’s begging? Or true intentions? Do you come up with a blanket policy that allows you to give money to anyone who is begging for it? Or do you do it on a case-by-case basis as Bridges does?
In 2012, Duke University professor Lasana Harris wrote a “Psychology Today” story about the perceptions of homelessness.
He studied the part of the brain that activates when humans deal with other humans. He found that when looking at the homeless, that part of the brain doesn’t light up.
We don’t see the homeless as human. Maybe if we did, the decision to give them money wouldn’t be so difficult.
I don’t know where to go from here.
I have to accept that on a fundamental level my brain is working against me. Sometimes I see a human being and refuse to believe that that person is there. On an intellectual level, however, I know that’s not the case. But on a neural level, the truth is altogether different.
And that leaves me still trying to figure out whether I should give money to the people I see begging on the streets.
I don’t have an answer.
Alex Granados writes about interesting people, places and traditions in North Raleigh and beyond. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.