Monday, October 29, 2007

Are homeless people bums?

Are the homeless people you see in uptown Charlotte “bums”?

Some commenters on an earlier post on this blog used the term freely when referring to the people who panhandle and sit on benches in uptown. I got a chance to consider a different viewpoint on the term this weekend.

Saturday was Hands on Charlotte Day, a big annual event that encourages thousands of locals to pitch in and volunteer to help dozens of local charities.

As an active Hands on Charlotte volunteer, I scanned the list of available projects and chose the Urban Ministry soup kitchen. I was interested in learning more about an agency I hadn’t volunteered with before.

When I pulled up to the facility on North College Street just north of uptown, I saw men and women waiting all around the property. Most appeared to be single and kept to themselves; a few small knots of people chatted with each other. They come to Urban Ministry to shower, do laundry, check possessions into and out of lockers, eat the daily soup kitchen lunch, or enroll in programs including art, photography and soccer. The facility offers a variety of services and referrals to homeless people, but is not a shelter. There are shelters nearby, but many of Urban Ministry’s clients sleep in woods or under bridges.

A man named Tommy who works with a group called “Homeless Helping Homeless” spoke to our group of volunteers. He told the story of how he became homeless for a time – he was struck by a debilitating neurological disorder that caused him to lose two former jobs; he couldn’t find a new one, and couldn’t cut through red tape to get disability payments. He stayed in the Uptown Men’s Shelter for a while but said he “felt like the walls were closing in,” so he put himself onto the streets. Frequently, he said, he’d take a bus to the airport and stay there overnight, pretending to be a stranded traveler. He said he’s sometimes asked why he chose to leave a shelter, and he said he doesn’t quite know. “I guess God wanted me to go through this,” he said.

Eventually, he got his condition under control with medication, got a job and received a grant to get an apartment. Now he speaks to many local groups to put a face on homelessness, he said. I was surprised to meet someone who was educated, not mentally ill and not a substance abuser who ended up homeless.

His advice for dealing with panhandlers: Don’t give them money. There are a lot of places around Charlotte for homeless people to find food and services. If they truly appear hungry, you can offer to buy them food – and their reaction will tell you whether they intended to use the money for food or enable an addiction.

As for the other people I saw at the agency, most took the time to smile, nod and express appreciation for the volunteers. We spent the day weeding, spreading mulch and generally tending to a garden that provides food for the soup kitchen. A couple of clients pitched in and pulled a few weeds with us. One walked by and said hello, then said: “I’m on day 11 out here. The nights are really cold.” I didn’t quite know what to say back, but I returned his greeting.

Personally, I won’t be quick to call anyone I see on the streets a bum. I won’t give them money, but I’m happy to support the agencies that can help them get back on their feet the way Tommy did.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

People always judge their fellow neighbor. When they come to their situation then we'll see how they act in the time of trouble. Everyone needs help regardless of the amount or quality of it. We need to help those who are in trouble, and not judge what they have gone through. Help with a hand, money, food, clothes, motivation talk, etc. Every Sunday morning at 6AM for the last 15yrs...the Assemblies of God church United Faith has been feeding about 100-200 ppl. Most of those ppl dont even look homeless. I have been going for the last 5-6 weeks, and those people need some love.

Help in some way that you can, and you will see the recompense from God. Everyone makes mistakes...and continues to make mistakes...but we are not the one who Judges or Condemns.

If you leave your life in the hands of riches/success then go watch the movie "Jack & Jill with Jim Carrey" and "Trading Places" with Eddie Murphy. It shows you that anything is possible....that's just life.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful commentary. My husband volunteered at the Uptown Men's shelter and was also surprised that most of the men there was just down on their luck. Divorce and the lack of affordable housing was often the cause of them being there.

But no matter the reason why they are there divorce,addiction or mental illness. These folks still deserve kindness and understanding.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would seem to be more compassionate for the "homeless" to direct them back to their families. This is their natural support network.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:48 PM  
Blogger unicorn1824 said...

I taught a computer class at the Urban Ministry in Raleigh several years ago. That experience and others really drove home how thin the line between making it and not making it can be.

Unfortunately, not everyone's home situation is condusive to healing; some homes are places to escape from, not return to.

If everyone did a little in whatever way they could we'd all be much better off.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would give them money if they wouldn't go buy booze or crack with it.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not believe they are bums. They are just like any of the rest of us. They have a heart, a soul and were once someones little child. They deserve love, care, a hot meal and a warm bath just as much as I do.

10:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, to some extent, some of them are "bums." There are regular crews of them who work/panhandle at specific intersections and interstate ramps, day after day, week after week, sometimes within walking distance of shelters. I have been seeing the same ones for years. Some come, some go, but there are habitual panhandlers who hang out wanting money. They carry signs..."Homeless vet" or "Please help. God bless." You see different ones carrying the same signs all the time. They look pitiful and needy, and perhaps they are, but as soon as they get enough money, it's off to the convenience store for beer or wine. Charlotte is one of the cities on their list (don't think they don't have one, either) of places that go easy on bums. If they've got enough energy to hang on the corners for eight hours a day, they've got enough energy to look for some kind of minimum wage or day labor job.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What was the guy's neurological condition, what red tape could he not get through, and how did he finally get meds? Did you ask?

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They can make more money at interstate ramps than they can working minimum wage 8 hrs a day.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Make no mistake -- some homeless people really ARE bums. Not everyone out there is a charity case who just caught a bad break. Some of these people are convicted felons, madmen, or just plain dirtbags.

Having said that, we need to have a better community-wide strategy for getting people in off the streets. Just putting a roof over a person's head doesn't get it done; that's shelter for a day, not a lifetime. We need a higher minimum wage, better control of hiring practices (to prevent immigrants from taking construction and food-service jobs that would otherwise be available to citizens), and an organized plan for moving people "up the ladder" from street to shelter to subsidized housing to independence.

Too often, our system is focused only on meeting today's needs -- getting a person out of the cold, putting a poor family into public housing, getting food for a starving baby. What we need is a way to convert a homeless person's life into something productive and prosperous.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a lot of them make 10-12/hr collecting money off the ramps...than working a full time job. if you dont want to give them money then hand off what you think will help them. warm blanket, food, etc

9:58 AM  
Blogger Leigh said...

To Anon 6:54: Yes, there were more details to his story - it would've made the post much longer to include all of them. Do you need the answers to decide whether Tommy is a bum or not? Clearly, certain elements of his story involve personal responsibility - he did choose to leave a shelter - but I can't necessarily say I would automatically do "all the right things" if I suddenly was unable to do the job I love.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that there are organizations that help the homeless because I do believe that some people can not help being homeless due to certain circumstances like Tommy's. However, there are "bums" who are people too lazy to get a job, and live off of the local government, and that I don't appreciate. Having lived & worked in an urban environment for 7 years, it is easy to tell bums from a homeless person. In my experience, a homeless person usually doesn't ask for money. They keep to themselves and use the services to their advantage. The bums ask for money and are usually drunk or high. This is just an eye witness view.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Tommy mention whether or not he had health insurance when he was ble to work?

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most People I have met that are homeless were once business owners that went sour sfter a divorce; When I am elected Mayor I will issue tents and cots to all homeless and will have a hot shower and coffee for them at several locations with security there . Thats what I can do for the homeless at this point; They can sleep o any public grounds and will have to take down the tent at a certain hour of day. Then they can errect it at night.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bums are professionals. Treat them with respect!

7:51 AM  

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