"Once upon a time . . .

You threw the bums a dime, didn’t you?”

-Bob Dylan “Like a Rolling Stone”-

Homeless man going through garbage, Wall and Gay, Knoxville

One reality that anyone living in an urban setting must face is the issue of homelessness. While many people weigh in on our local discussion of housing first for the homeless, versus I’m not sure what, those of us who live downtown have a much more personal and less theoretical interaction with the topic. Knoxville certainly seems to have its share of homeless individuals, though I’ve seen far more in other cities, such as New Orleans. Sometimes I wonder if our homeless population seems larger because of the relative smallness of our downtown area.

I tend to evaluate the homeless people I meet, which may just be a more comfortable word for “judge.” I have a mental health background, so I can usually determine who might be mentally ill. Then there are those who seem likely or obviously addicted. Some are old, feeble mentally and/or physically and clearly incompetent to alter their situation on their own. I tend to react differently depending on that determination.

There are also a couple of different groups I’ve seen come through town in the last year who are young, apparently able-bodied and very aggressive in asking for money, food or cigarettes. They are the most intimidating and the group I feel least inclined to help. They often stay in a group and sometimes block sidewalks forcing people to deal with them.

So what to do?

Reactions to homeless people run a gamut from pretending not to see them or aggressively confronting them, to attempting to help in some way. I’ll confess I’ve been guilty of pretending not to see them – avoiding eye contact because I think I’m about to be panhandled. Of course, some homeless people don’t panhandle and some panhandlers aren’t homeless, but there is  a large overlap.

Here are some situations I’ve faced in the last few months:

When passing a small group of young, very dirty, seemingly able-bodied  men I was asked for money. “Help a brother out,” or something similar was said. I kept walking and shook my head. As I walked away one of them called out, “That’s right. Rich people don’t care nothing about the rest of us.” The same person saw me later and said something similar.

“Frank” approached me one night on Gay street and asked if I would help a veteran. I kept walking. The next night he approached me on Union Avenue and pitched the same thing, this time displaying a card that, I suppose, was to support the truth to his claim. My companion engaged him in conversation, so he followed us on the sidewalk. I finally gave him a dollar and he kept following us and asked for another. I said no and he laughed and said I couldn’t blame him for trying.

A woman, around thirty years old, missing teeth, overweight and poorly dressed stopped my group on Market Square on a Saturday night. She said she had been waiting for someone at St. Johns who was supposed to help her, but that after four hours they said they could not do so. She said she had two hungry children at home (subsidized in Townview Terrace) and she was badly in need of money for her epilepsy medication. She said FISH (local food organization) couldn’t help her until Wednesday and that Volunteer Ministries and the KARM wouldn’t help her because she had a home. Even if a church could help her later, it wouldn’t do her any good right now. She said the police only offered to take her children into protective custody. She pointed out that the missing teeth were from her abusive husband who is now in jail. For twenty dollars she could buy food and fill her prescription.

I’ve been asked for cigarettes, lights, money, money for coffee and money for gasoline. I heard one woman ask a group of men for money so she could “get drunk and get laid.” They gave it to her because, they said, of her honesty.

So what would you have done in each of these situations? What is truly helpful? I’d like to hear your stories of encounters and how you handled them. E-mail me or comment on this post. This will be the subject of this month’s poll and I’ll also attempt to get answers from some of the downtown people who certainly should have an opinion.

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