Where I come from, the homeless are a dime a dozen, and beggars are as common as the neglected pennies of college students. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. While growing up, it was not uncommon for me to run into a crackhead who literally asked for a quarter everyday. It was no secret, everyone knew it, these beggars (and im pretty sure that term is very un-politically correct) were buying drugs with the money people gave them for whatever object or lie they could conjure up to get someone to give them spare change.
I remember being in a barbershop as a high school student in East Cleveland and a homeless man—I only assume his homelessness due to the cardboard sign he was carrying—came into the shop asking if anyone wanted to buy a 3 piece Popeye’s meal. This was obviously a meal that someone had bought him in hopes to help, but also not wanting to supply him with drug money. And here he was, attempting to sell a plate of food, for cash. Due to situations and experiences like this, growing up in the hood desensitized me to the homeless and the reaction to anyone asking for money on the street has been transformed into an automated message system: Nah, I’m good Brutha. This is my response, not really saying no, adding a positive word in the middle of the sentence, and concluded the statement of rejection with a term of endearment. It’s been my response to the homeless asking for money since I was in 9th grade.
I would like to take this time to look a bit more in depth about how I interact with homeless people (or people who I ignorantly assume to be homeless) and how society as a whole generally looks down on these people. Why do we look down on them?
Well, it’s the age-old American value system that labels these individuals as being lazy leeching deviants that would rather beg hard working “Americans” for money than get a job and work hard. Subconsciously, every time I responded with “Nah, I’m good brutha” it became the remnant of a stereotyped over-simplified judgment of these individuals who were asking for money.
It is too easy to say that these men (and women) are just lazy. It is too easy to say that they are just a part of a deviant culture of people who don’t care to work hard and be “upstanding Americans.” And it is too easy to judge and dismiss them for the life they live. While I know agency is always a factor in people’s life, I also come to notice that institutional barriers are far too often (and conveniently) swept under the rug , so people that are marginalized become the sole blame for the life they live and the environment that they inherited to live in.
Three homeless men approached me in the last 24 hours (once again I am assuming they are homeless, I know, I need to stop). The first was a man who was selling stolen movies and the second was trying to sell me a Motorola charger for one dollar. (I can’t make this stuff up). The first two men got sent straight to my automated message system: Nah, I’m good Brutha. But the third was the one that got me. I was in a McDonalds, and a man asked me “aye dude, can I get some money for me and my son.” Right when I was going to send him to the automated message, I looked down and saw a boy about 3 years old with no shirt on and I don’t know what hungry looks like, but this little guy was it.
This situation caused me to internalize every judgment I have been making since high school when people ask me for money on the street. I’m not saying that I will be giving up some change every time I’m called upon, but I am saying that not only myself, but people in general should question how they interact with homeless people and not fall into the trap of categorizing them as something just because it’s easy to do and furthermore a cop-out for what the real problems are. And yes, I gave the man and his son money for food.