July 22nd, 2008

airbrushed, thoughtful

The panhandler

Several months ago, near when I moved up here from Missouri, I met a panhandler at a bus stop. As he was skilled at his trade, I didn't immediately know him to be one when I first met him- although I harbored suspicions; he showed many of the signs of homelessness. He said as much, later on in our conversation, explaining his overall lack of sleep due to spending the last few nights on the street; it was then he asked for money, promising to use it to pay for a night in a local hostel. I had no reason to disbelieve his usage plans; he didn't show signs of drug addiction, and shelter- even for one night- was pretty obviously his most severe need. So I handed him some of my cash-on-hand, took it off my luxury budget, and hoped I'd been at least some help.

I knew at the time that the story I'd been told didn't quite add up. I had no reason to doubt his statement about being put out of work by losing a workman's comp claim after a jaw-and-leg-breaking industrial accident in a factory- that sounds entirely plausible; it was the "just came in from Texas" part I had my doubts about. (It didn't help his credibility that he didn't sound like someone from Texas.) But he didn't seem like a dangerous person, or like one averse to work and preferring to live as a beggar; I believed the concept of him being unlucky. I know how close some members of my family have been to total financial ruin if they miss so much as one paycheck- it doesn't take much, sometimes.

I guess part of it is that it was a reasonable and well-told story; I didn't deeply care if he was telling me the truth or not. He told me things that made me want to help him, and he seemed like he could use the assistance, and he was an interesting man to talk to for the duration of the conversation. Panhandling is an art, and I honestly decided at the time that he was good enough at it to deserve compensation for his skill- and I still think that's true. I suppose it's a bizarre value judgement on my part...

I guess the charity was out-of-character for me. My parents were strict and clear on the concept that one does not give to panhandlers; the homeless who need help are best assisted by giving to shelters and city programs to help, and all the assistance and advice that can be given to get them into those programs- it's likely to do a lot more good than just giving money. That said, all the panhandlers I met in St. Louis seemed potentially dangerous, boozed-up, or both; this particular man seemed neither. I admit I had misgivings and questions about it at the time, and later- it was the opposite of what I'd been taught to do. But it seemed like he honestly needed it, and would use it reasonably.

I saw him again, a few months later, asking for directions to the library. (I was with Rakeela and another local friend, heading to Redmond Town Center.) He looked better- his tote bag had been upgraded significantly (replaced with one not falling apart at the seams), he looked (and smelled) like he'd had a recent shower, and his clothes were in better repair. And he was asking for directions to the library, not money. (Although this may be his modus operandi- to never ask the same person for money twice.) We went on, trading notes- we'd all seen him before, and he was looking better.

Well, last Saturday, Rakeela and I saw him again, and we talked for a bit. It was at Crossroads Mall this time, where I was just contemplating the last two slices of pizza I bought but didn't feel like finishing then (from a real pizza place, not one of the food-court pizza buffets), and contemplating where I could buy a container to take it home in. He made a half-joking request for a slice- which, after realizing who it was, I was happy to oblige. Although my recognition was a bit slow, because he was a little difficult to recognize.

He declined the offer of the pizza, though, even after asking, calling it a joke; it seemed like the sort of thing that was half a joke. I'd've been glad to give it to him, given that I was full anyway, but he actually did decline it. We got to talking a bit; he mentioned working with a theater group.

Which explained a lot, really. He wasn't carrying all his posessions with him. He looked clean and healthy; his clothes were in good condition. He looked healthier than I'd ever seen him before, and when we told him where we bought the pizza and how cheaply, he quickly went off in the referenced direction (with the apparent intent of taking advantage of the discount that was the reason we bought pizza at all).

I think what I'm saying is that I really, really hope all this means what it seems to mean- he has a job, and he has a home.

Which tells me a lot in a case-study sort of way. (Yes, the plurality of "anecdote" is not "data", I know- and I only have the one.) A question brought up in my Psychology class after observing the high correlation between homelessness and mental illness was that of whether the stress of living on the street causes mental illness, or if most people without mental illness can find employment and shelter rapidly if they find themselves without it at all. I had no idea which it was, during class, but after observing this man (and I keep editing his name out for the sake of his privacy; I keep tending to use it), I'm starting to believe the latter is the stronger factor. The man was under stress as bad as anybody's, but he never "lost it", as far as either of us can tell- and it looks like, in the end, he's found somewhere. I hope he has.
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