Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A $5 solution to homelessness

I'm conflicted by expert advice on how to deal with the homeless.

My instinct is to give, give, give. I give them coins, I give them cash, I give them food, I give them encouragement. I’ve been doing this for about 15 years because I can’t forget what it’s like to be homeless.

Now well-meaning organizations devoted to helping the homeless -- and I give to them, too -- say this is counter-productive to the street person’s well-being.

They say it makes them dependent on begging, that they use the dough to splurge on drugs or booze. This with me isn’t exactly the moral conundrum they might imagine. If I’m in the city, guaranteed a good chunk of my change is going for hootch.

That’s what happened this weekend. Me and about 65,000 other affable inebriates attended the Pittsburgh Steeler game to watch them whack the Lady Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots.

The games are magnets for the city’s homeless. You pass dozens of them on the sidewalk with their forlorn signs and tattered cups extended.

Some give. The vast majority do not.

And those of us who give do so at the risk of hearing belittling scorn from strangers who ridicule the notion it does any good.

One truly unfortunate side effect of the drive to stop people from giving to less fortunates is it gives people permission to feel superior for being indifferent.

People now feel entitled to be smug about doing nothing.

That’s wrong.

I say this even while acknowledging the experts may be right. Maybe our meager change does little. I’ve been donating to some of the same homeless people for 20 years.

So I’m proposing a solution that will allow every compassionate soul to feel good about themselves and know we’re all making a real difference.

We need to have one day a month for concentrated and comprehensive giving to select homeless in our neighborhoods.

There are 65,000 people in Pittsburgh affluent enough to afford what the greed maestros of the NFL charge to watch professional football. Others go to the theater. Many of them work in the city and for years have seen the same homeless people on the way to work five days a week.

They know at least one homeless person who looks like he or she could use a break.

What if one day a month everyone was encouraged to give that person $2, $5, $20 or more? It’s chump change to people who think nothing of spending $7.50 for stadium beer or Starbucks coffee.

What if people brought him or her an old coat, a blanket, some shoes, a bus pass, a recommendation for a menial job or an appointment and a promise of transportation to a dentist willing to do some pro bono cleanings?

It’s not inconceivable that a homeless person could haul in $2,500 in one day if just 500 city dwellers decided they wanted to make a difference by dropping $5 in one big bucket.

Sure, the guy’s going to go on a splurge. I’d do the same (and I’d take you along, too, my friend!).

But even the most committed lush can’t blow $2,500. At some point hangover will set in and that person’s going to be forced to make a choice: do I want to change my life or drink myself to death?

I believe 90 percent of the people living on the streets don’t want to be there. Seed those lives with money and a little guidance and they will at least try to take advantage of the opportunity.

There’s no telling what can happen to any of us when given a fresh start. Lives targeted for mass benevolence can change for the better, some of them overnight.

Of course, some of them will indeed disappear from the cityscape by drinking themselves to death.

I can’t help but think that result wouldn’t bother one bit many of the people who like to think they’re doing all they can by doing nothing at all.

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