Blogger: Randy Evans
There’s been a lot of discussion happening online in response to Casey Roman’s recent WECT documentary, “Fly A Sign,” a piece of reporting that did a good job of offering a variety of perspectives regarding persons in poverty. In these related social media conversations, some passionate, frequently stated concerns about panhandling included the idea that money solicited would be used for drugs and alcohol, or that panhandling offers enough wealth to afford a house and a car. Although there aren’t any statistics or studies that support either of these accusations, they still remain common misperceptions about people who panhandle. What I do know is this: if someone gives one hundred persons in poverty $5.00 each and ten people do choose to buy alcohol with that money, it doesn’t change the fact that ninety other people may have been able to afford a hot meal because of what was given.
When I give money to people who are panhandling, I can’t look at them and tell the difference between who actually needs the money and who doesn’t. Instead, the giving, and the knowledge that by giving I am helping someone else, is what offers satisfaction. I recognize that in my line of work, I get to know persons in poverty personally, affording me the opportunities to build relationships of trust. Because of this trust, my friends in poverty know that if they are in need, they can call me, and they trust that I will do what I can to help them. Because I have worked to build relationship and get to know persons living in poverty in Wilmington, I can more easily choose to no longer be suspicious about what any money I give will be used for. I’ve come to recognize common needs, frequent desires, and daily realities that people in poverty face, and find peace in knowing that money given will likely be used to address these issues. However, I also know that once I hand over the cash, I’m no longer in charge of it – anything can happen at that point. Once money is given to the person who is panhandling, I surrender control of what that money will be used for. I’ve come to peace with this, but know that it remains a significant struggle for others.
Preferring to maintain a sense of control, some of those willing to give money prefer to give to local shelters or organizations dedicated to caring for the poor, instead of giving money directly to persons who panhandle. Excuses are often given about preferring to know that the money will “be used in the right ways,” and yet, ironically, many people who give don’t bother to take the time to explore how various shelters and organizations make use their donations. Are your donations going toward food and shelter for persons in need, or Christmas bonuses and high CEO salaries? We’re willing to put in a lot of time and detective work regarding prospective preschools for our own children; are we as willing to investigate the charitable organizations we donate to? I understand that these are difficult questions, and that they make some uncomfortable. However, if we’re unwilling to give directly to people in poverty out of a concern that they can’t be trusted to handle the money well, the very least we can do is work to ensure the faithful finances of the charitable organizations we trust instead.
Many of you may be unaware of the constant boundaries placed in front of people in poverty, some raised even by the very organizations designed to help them. Many shelters and organizations make use of what I call “pre-entry stipulations” to designate who receives support and who does not. These include: enforcing rigid rules and expectations, which when not followed in detail result in a loss of access to food and shelter; requiring individuals in poverty to surrender identifying information, including portions of Social Security numbers, in order to receive food; demanding that persons in poverty sit through a sermon or prayer service in order to receive food, clothing, or other forms of support. In all of these situations, persons experiencing poverty are given just enough to ensure that they need to return quickly for further support, again supported by the accusation that impoverished persons cannot be trusted to know how to handle money responsibly or care faithfully for themselves.
The challenge we face as people of affluence is this: when approaching those in poverty, we can either focus upon the money we have to offer or the opportunity we have to connect with another person. There are unique, powerful, and striking stories that make up the lives of anyone who’s willing to ask someone else for money on the streets, and when asked, we are offered an opportunity to begin to get to know what those stories are. No two people panhandling are the same, but they remain people just the same, with names, friendships, hopes, and experiences. At Walking Tall Wilmington, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to get to know people in poverty, developing friendships that transcend economic barriers. Whether it’s distributing much-needed items to those in need, eating together at food trucks down by the river, or just hanging out and swapping stories, you can embrace the opportunity to build relationships that transform lives (including your own). If you’ve struggled in the past with panhandling, being unsure about trusting people in poverty, trust can be built even an hour at a time. We’d love for you to join us, and there are many who would be happy to meet and get to know you.