May 2, 2009

Politics & Social Issues

What Does it Really Take to Make Someone Happy?

by EJH

A few weeks ago, I was driving around town running some errands. In my city, we seem to have an excessive number of panhandlers, or at least more than I’ve witnessed living in other cities. Sometimes it feels like they are at every street corner. So while driving, I spotted a woman on the corner at a stoplight. She was fairly young – perhaps in her early 40’s – and she had a crutch. She was wearing old jeans and a few layers of shirts, and her hair was pulled back. As I approached the red light, she was directly to my left holding a sign. I thought for a few moments and quickly realized I had no cash, so I rolled down my window and asked her how she was doing. I explained that I didn’t have any cash on me but asked if she might like something to eat.
Her face lit up. I asked her what she wanted, and she looked around for a moment before letting me know that I could just go to the Church’s Fried Chicken restaurant across the street. I asked her what she would like to eat – I’m not going to spend money on food for someone unless it’s what they really want to eat – and she said anything as long as the chicken was not spicy. I zipped over to Church’s, got some random combo meal and walked it over to her.

I was expecting sort of a quick exchange, yet I was amazed by how truly thankful she was. You could see it in her face – her whole demeanor and expression changed. When she saw I had also purchased her a drink with the combo, she exclaimed, “Oh! I was praying you’d get me a drink. Oh I’m so glad!” I had never seen someone so happy to get a medium-sized Pepsi in my life. She thanked me again and we parted ways.

The entire bill for her combo meal came to $6.27. I was overwhelmed by how very little it had taken to make someone so happy. It’s so easy these days not to be satisfied. Our minds tend to latch on to what we don’t have or wish we had. God knows, I spend a lot of time wallowing in negative thought myself, which is probably why it was so surprising to me to witness firsthand how a $6 buck combo meal could totally make someone’s day. I was jealous in many ways because it had been a while since something so simple had made me so happy.

As a social worker, I am often amazed at the sheer cruelty of others. In my experience, most of this cruelty is what I once heard referred to as “accidental cruelty” – in other words, people don’t intentionally mean to hurt or mistreat others. They act out of their own needs and let the chips fall where they may. I believe that accidental cruelty can also occur out of ignorance and misunderstandings about situations. I have experienced a lot of accidental cruelty displayed to panhandlers and it is something I’ve never gotten used to. I don’t want to get used to it.

A lot of people might think I was foolish to give that woman a meal. I’m wasting my money, she should really get a job, she’s being lazy – if she just tried hard enough she could get it together. I wonder if the people who say that have ever been unemployed or disabled. I have also heard people theorize that panhandlers aren’t really in need, but that they secretly have apartments and cars. I wonder if these people realize that you can have enough money to pay for rent but not enough for food or that people sleep in the cars they own because they can’t afford a place to live. I wonder if they know what’s like to live on a job that pays $6 an hour and offers no benefits. Maybe this woman did have an apartment and a job, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need help. It doesn’t mean she has enough to pay for rent and bills and food and medical care. I barely have enough to cover all that and I have a Master’s degree and work at a good job.

The most common complaint I hear is that all panhandlers are actually addicts. This could be true, though I doubt literally every homeless person has a drug issue. My opinion has always been, who the hell cares? Drug addicts need to eat too. I understand that they could use my money for drugs, but they could also be using it to buy their kids something to eat. Throwing around the phrase, “They’re all just a bunch of addicts,” enables people who think they have it together to emotionally distance themselves from those in need. What you’re really saying when you label a panhandler as “just an addict” is, “I am better than this person because I am not an addict. They deserve to be where they are because they use drugs/alcohol.” Maybe I’m just a silly 'kumbaya' social worker, but I believe that no one deserves to be without basic needs.

I don’t kid myself. I know that my actions do nothing to resolve the obvious serious and long term issues these folks are facing. I know that the woman I bought the chicken for was probably back panhandling within minutes of finishing her meal. For long term change to happen, I would need to consistently give money to organizations that help the homeless, vote for political candidates who are willing to pass laws and bills that support social service programs, and volunteer more of my time on an ongoing basis. But in the moment when something simple is needed, stepping up and saying, “Sure, I’ll help with that,” does make a difference. I have always felt that small changes lead to big changes.

In my opinion, a large part of life is living within a community. These panhandlers are my neighbors, and isn’t it really our duty to help folks out when they need it? Haven't there been times when all of us have needed help? The only difference is that some of us have parents, siblings, friends or spouses who will lend us a few bucks when we’re short or give us a ride when our car is broken down, and others do not. What would we do if we didn’t have those people? What might any of us be forced to do if our need was desperate enough?

EJH has been writing poetry since she was 12 years old. She is originally from the Northeast but has lived in Austin, Texas for 7 years. She currently works as a licensed social worker for a large non-profit organization. You can find more of her poetry at her blog.