I recently got into a conversation about the homeless with a lady friend of mine. She was watching a local TV expose on a woman on 5th avenue dressed in disheveled clothing and crutches who was pandhandling. Now, the news crew got curious to see whether she was really homeless or not and decided to follow her. Turns out she wasn’t homeless and she got exposed.
My take on that news piece: nothing good comes out of it.
Truth be told, everybody is hustling in NYC, some of which pushes the boundaries of what is moral and legal. It’s one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in, and can be very unforgiving if you find yourself in the wrong socioeconomic strata. The other truth is that nothing here is handed down easily. Most of the scammers here have to work really hard, as New Yorkers are some of the most skeptical people around. So it’s not like people here give into every scam that they see. The news piece points to two issues and for my tastes treats them in an interwoven manner: scammers and the actual homeless. To me, those are two different issues because you can find scammers in all sorts of clothing more easily than you can identify the homeless. For the sake of this commentary, homeless folks will refer to people having issues finding a place to sleep, access to consistent food and basic hygiene supplies.
I had some out of towners visit in the spring to NYC and on a day out we came across some homeless people. The group started sharing their own stories of trapping the scammers who appeared to be homeless. While it was somewhat comical to listen to these stories, it reminded me of how much of a smaller percentage of these scammers exist and why they sully the efforts of the stereotypical destitute on the street.
People’s skepticism is warranted: some appearing to be homeless use the money for drugs, some are pure scam artists using props (including kids and animals). I don’t disagree with people’s skepticism at all. Where my issue lies is painting the people we see on the street as destitute as one large homogeneous group facing the exact same issues. Using such a lens further keeps those who are truly destitute as societal outcasts, almost subhuman. Having worked with LGBTQ individuals who were homeless, you cannot completely fault those who try all sorts of things to cope in such an intense situation.
My own strategy has been to be selective of who I’ve given to on the street. What’s my criteria? What my gut tells me. If I feel comfortable in lending aid, then I’d prefer to offer food over money. I’ve had people tell me they don’t eat certain food I’ve offered; I’ve had people willing to go to a supermarket to choose items; I’ve had people willing to go into a store to order food. Many just want to be treated like people again. I just try to take a situational approach too and take it in good faith.
I’ve shared a story here of offering to get food for a mother and daughter I was approached in the street and they ran away in terror because someone tricked them prior to meeting me. A follow-up story is I recently ran into a woman in a wheelchair who said she was diabetic and looking for a meal near a street fair. I had to run to a bank to get cash to offer her aid (told her I was doing so) but the bank line was long and took me a while. As soon as I finally finished I saw her outside of the bank and she stated she went looking for me. I told her I wasn’t going to leave her hanging and let her choose her own meal at one of the stands at the street fair.
I’ve always made the same argument: whenever you see someone on the street who is stating they are homeless and is looking for money, nothing’s guaranteed. If you don’t feel like your money is going to go where you want it to, then don’t give (but don’t be rude about that either). If you want to ensure your hard-earned cash goes to help people in need, research a charity and then donate your time or money. It’s really not that fair to single out the people on the streets with one’s skepticism. Are there scam artists among them? Sure. It does take a certain degree of cojones to go out there daily to maintain a charade of being destitute.
While I don’t always agree with how people hustle, I won’t knock it as I’m not in their shoes to have to make those decisions they are faced with making.