Friday, April 2, 2010

Right Action on the Streets

Here's an interesting post for you all to consider from Daishin, whose blog is also worth a deeper look.

The neighbourhood I live in has a high number of people begging in the street. Individuals and groups sit near stores and the pub. Each time I go by, I’m faced with a dilemma. How do I reconcile my desire (my vow!) to be of service, to practice compassion, to alleviate suffering, with the fact that no amount of money I give will make a dent. In addition, my critical voice notices cell phones, to-go coffee cups, and cigarettes in plain sight and, in many instances, alcohol and drugs not far behind. Sometimes I feel anger arising for being ‘made to feel’ un-generous and privileged.

I’ve watched myself react in different ways: avoiding certain corners altogether; crossing the street in anticipation; looking down as I pass the person; saying hello and gesturing sorry no change; giving a few coins; giving all the change in my pocket; picking up a muffin and offering it on the way back. None of these are satisfactory solutions; often the same person sits at the same spot each time I walk by and there are more people looking for a handout down the street.

I’m at a loss of what to do. How do you handle these situations? What would be ‘right action’ from a Buddhist perspective? I’d be grateful for your advice and insights.

Last spring, I dated a woman who worked with homeless folks. She was out on the streets everyday, doing what she could to help people find homes, social service resources, or to just be available to listen to people's stories. I deeply respected her easy-going attitude about all this, coupled with a sincere passion to make a dent in homelessness, and all the assorted problems attached to it.

One thing I noticed for myself during the time I spent with her (about three months) was the variety of responses I had in regards to people I encountered begging on the streets. Often, it was sadly dependent on how I felt that day. If I was feeling open and generous, I'd smile or chat for a moment with someone. Maybe offer some change, or maybe not. If I felt closed, exhausted, or irritated, I'd either avoid the person completely, avoid eye contact, or simply rush to the judgment that they wanted money and I wasn't having any of that.

In this dog eat dog capitalist society we have, homelessness and poverty in general are simply givens. The whole house of cards is built on the fact that some people will simply be screwed no matter what they do. Certainly, some folks make a pile of decisions that aid in being the ones who are screwed, but others do everything they can and still are amongst the screwed. So, it's a deeply complicated pattern of personal decisions and social structures interacting within any person's life (yours, mine, people on the streets.) A few people even stay on the streets by choice, and really don't feel the need, for whatever reason, to have a steady roof over their heads or a steady job. Other people fake homelessness to get some extra cash for a habit, for rent, for food, any number of things really. So, what you see may not actually be what is. People like to indulge in righteous anger at these fakers, but the reality is they tend to be in trouble too. Most people don't choose to beg on the streets for shits and giggles.

The thing is, though, that for those of us who have steady jobs and steady roofs over our heads, we're terribly prone to reducing humans on the streets to caricatures.

There's the "transactional" image, where a person is simply a beggar of money who needs to be given to or not given to.

There's the "poor them" image, where the person is simply a victim.

The opposite of that one is the "too bad sucker" image, where the person is simply an irresponsible, lazy bum who made bad decisions and now is being punished.

And finally, there's the "poor me" imagine, where the person is simply an irritation or a burden for the other person or people passing them.

Daishin asks what "right action" is when it comes to interacting with people begging on the streets. Well, I don't think there's any fixed answer. One thing that comes to mind though is that to the degree any of us can look past assumptions and appearances, and simply engage what or who is in front of us, that to me seems to speak of how close or far we are from "right action." It's not about giving money or not. Or even talking to someone or not. It's much bigger than all of that, and yet contains those pairs as well.


Adam said...

I spent quite a few months homeless in Seattle my self. It was a truly eye-opening experience. There were so many homeless that wanted to be homeless. They didn't want any part of organized society. They wanted to be pariahs. This was more than the occasional occurance too. I'd say about half or more of the people that I met felt this way.

What wasn't surprising was that well over half of the homeless I encountered suffered from some sort of mental disease.

In Seattle, it was possible to eat 3-5 times a day for free, find a place to take a real shower, do your laundry, and find a place to sleep during the night (usually in a church). The only people that went hungry were ones that were banned from certain hand-out areas because they had been violent there, or those whose mental illness was so bad that they couldn't function well enough to find assistance.

After I got myself out of that situation, I realized that yes, homeless people are just as human as we are. I think treating them as such is right action. Treating them like less of a person, or someone that is undesireable disconnects us from our human connection I think.

Hmm..... i'm thinking I need to write a post about this. Much too complex for a comment. :)

Nice post Nathan.

Nathan said...

Hi Adam,

Yeah, it's hard to figure out who really wants to be outside of organized society, and who is simply struggling too much and says they want to be homeless because they don't know what else to do. It also depends on where you are at. Here in Minnesota, few truly want to be homeless in winter - it's just too damned cold.

You've got experience that most of us don't have - definitely worth a post!


NellaLou said...

Having been homeless a couple of times myself, once by choice staying at punk squats and the like and once by circumstances I agree that it is a complicated situation. In the first instance I wouldn't have accepted anything that went against my counter-cultural political perspective (anti-capitalist, anarchist etc) and in the second instance I hated the feeling of helplessness so much that I actively sought any and every resource available and rectified the situation in a couple of months. But it took an absolute stubborn single-mindedness to do it. That was eventually something I could look upon as a beneficial experience. It proved I couldn't make excuses for myself. Emerging from the victim role to the survivor and beyond that to an empowered advocate role is quite a turn of mind. But all empowerment has to be self-empowerment, though a hand along the way makes it a little less difficult.