Monday, July 31, 2006

How Homeless Are They?

The other day, I was walking up Michigan Avenue and stumbled across, literally, a man who looked very dirty laying on the sidewalk - or more to the point, reclining up against the building at Water Tower Place. I immediately sized him up as being a vagrant and homeless. And just as immediately, I felt sympathy, as I always do, when I see someone in that situation. "There but for the grace of God go I", I say to myself. After shelling out a little over $15,000 last year for expenses not covered by my insurance company for my surgery, I found that I had to start all back over again. There were times when I was just a paycheck or two away from being that man that I stumbled across.

Or so I thought.

Upon closer inspection of the man laying in the street with outstretched cup for donations, I read the sign he had propped up against himself. It was a cardboard sign, written in black marker, asking for donations to help him out. The last line on the sign read,

"...your helped is appreciated".

And I thought how on earth did he correctly spell the word "appreciated", but misused a first grade word like "help", especially when the word "help" is written so often by those who are in need of it? Every other word on his sign was spelled correctly.

Another block or so up the street was yet another man, assumably homeless, with the word "unfortunate" spelled correctly, and the word "pleese" tacked on at the end. And then I suddenly felt like a fool. And I wondered how many other people who seem to be living on the streets are posers and how many are the real thing.

Of course, seeing this story didn't help matters.

For me, it is admittedly a short drive to the town of Cynical. I tend to NOT believe more than believe. I am not a pessimist -- I have been fooled just enough times to be more wary. I would never give money to someone on the street anyway, because I have volunteered in shelters before and was told to always donate to a shelter or organization rather than give money to a person on the street. For one thing, you never know how your money is going to be spent (I don't want to unknowingly support someone's alcohol addiction or crack habit). I have actually offered food to people on the street before - sometimes it was accepted graciously, sometimes it was taken without so much as a thank you, and sometimes it was thrown back at me.

In the book, Etiquette for Outlaws, it says to never give money to a panhandler, and when approached and asked for money, one should respond with "not today" rather than "I'm sorry", because the latter is too condescending to those who really ARE homeless and in need. But for those who aren't really authentic (be it a sociology student doing a project, a college kid pulling a prank, or just a lazy person who doesn't want to actually work for a living), a condescending word is just not enough retribution.