March of the Homeless

An unidentified homeless man sleeps nearby Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland, Ore.

As the weather warms, all types of hobos, gypsies and vegabonds make way to the streets of Portland, Ore.. This is my first chance to witness the springtime migration, and let me tell you — it’s astonishing.

I’d heard about this sort of thing last fall when I moved here. For whatever reason, the population of “street people” (as our landlord so lovingly calls them) explodes this time of year. Pioneer Square downtown transforms from a pile of bricks to the landing ground for some of the most interesting characters you will ever observe. Nary a stoop or doorway downtown goes unoccupied overnight, as the homeless seek cover from the rainy weather. It’s like the population doubles.

The overwhelmingly population of street people here for the summer can be misleading. It’s hard to put a percentage on the number of people who are actually homeless, really in need, and are genuinely suffering. There’s also a large number of runaways and castoffs who look at living on the streets as an adventure. For rich kids up from San Francisco or here from Boston and New York, it’s a chance to connect to something real, man. (Kind of like how going to Johannesburg and staying in a five-star hotel makes you understand the South African experience.)

I’ve done a dismal job of giving to the poor. I’m that guy who’s slow to hand over a dollar bill for fear it’ll be spent on booze or drugs. I’d rather pass along a value meal or a bus pass. My girlfriend and I served at the Oregon Food Bank in Northeast Portland a few times last fall, but other than that, I usually keep my eyes up and forward, or sometimes I bury myself in my iPhone, where I diligently scroll through my playlist to look preoccupied.

I’ve got a theory: Debit cards are killing homeless people. Even if I wanted to throw a quarter here and there, the reality is I never carry cash, so I never have change. The first homeless person to set up a shop with a debit-card scanner will monopolize the begging game like no one has ever seen before. And really, what could be more American?

It goes against my liberal values to do so little in way of helping the homeless. I was particularly humbled by the population the first few months after we moved here. I was unemployed for three months, hopelessly throwing applications in every direction. I remember long walks from business to business, broiling under the August sun, filling out references while my girlfriend worked her pharmacy technician job to support us. About the time my savings dried up, I remember looking at every homeless person who passed and thinking, We’re not so different. That could be me if I don’t get a job soon.

I feel like an ass for having ever thought such a thing. The reality is I’m a white male with a college education and a supportive family. Society is set up to benefit people like me. Not everyone has the same safety nets in place. That’s why I feel compelled to be more active in helping the homeless. I’m not committing myself to volunteer organizations or planning any community service. Small things.

I can buy Street Roots, the newspaper assembled and distributed by the impoverished. The way it works is vendors by a bundle at a dollar per issue, then sell each issue for two dollars. It’s a great publication from what I’ve read and supports journalism and truth-seeking as a means of income. What’s not to love about that?

There are worse things than being wrong. That’s something you learn with age, but it’s in your best interests to temper the frequency and margin by which you’re wrong. If I give a homeless guy a dollar and he spends it on a bottle of Steel Reserve, am I really at a loss? Helping doesn’t entitle me to be the health police. How can I really know what’s best for anyone else?

I’m having a hard time tying a bow on the blog post. I’ll end it up abruptly. Let me open it up to you, the readers. What (if anything) do you do to help the homeless and impoverished? What’s your attitude on giving, even when you worry your gift won’t be used the “right” way?

7 thoughts on “March of the Homeless

  1. I generally will not throw dollars at homeless. Last year I kept a bag of apples and a box of granola bars in my car so that whenever I drove up to a homeless person, I could give them one of each and call it a good lunch for them. I have ran through McDonald’s and given a few value meals also. And whether or not it’s true, each person has always seemed just as appreciative as much if I threw them a dollar. The question is: Are you helping the homeless to make yourself feel like a better person or are you doing it to help others? I’ve questioned myself many times on that. I will continue to give food but do not want to be doing it just to be able to pat myself on the back later.

  2. Regarding Annie’s comment, I have to ask if “patting yourself on the back” is keeping you from donating $$ to the homeless or if it is the possibility that actual dollars may not get the homeless any food, but rather booze or other non-nutritional items?

    It’s a real shame so many of us are jaded by those opportunists pretending to be homeless and hungry. The real victims meanwhile suffer yet again from not getting much needed hand me downs and donations, don’t they …

      • Aha, Andrew … that’s the other side of the coin, isn’t it. Yet do we continually ask ourselves, “all but for the Grace of God?” I do … and I have seen the opposite side of the coin as well. There’s no easy answer is there.

        For me, I try to act in a way that brings me no shame, or danger. However I ask if we begrudge a donation of $$ are we really doing anyone any good? I’m not denying each person’s responsibility for themselves, but in some way does the system prove we’re a part of the failure for the person/people panhandling?

      • That’s why I wrote, “There are worse things than being wrong.” If I’m fooled by an opportunist, am I really at a loss? At least I know my heart’s in the right place.

  3. If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. In the perfect world…We do what we can-Habitat for Humanity, serving the banquet here in our little community. Why do we do this? Because these people are people, whether they choose this life style or not, it still tugs at our hearts and souls…

  4. Here, here. Great article. I understand why you’re hesitant giving money to the homeless on the street. I’d much rather give my money to charities that help the less fortunate get jobs, provide housing, etc, than directly to people on the street.

    Also, glad you felt like an ass for thinking you could ever be homeless.

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