Although I was not surprised on how “easy” the kids seemed to have it while participating in the “urban plunge” described in your cover story “Home Free” (12/17/99), I was glad to see that they almost all realized that homelessness cannot be reproduced or pantomimed. The uneasy feelings they were experiencing when they were “duping” people on the street for money came from not only their own empathy, but also their understanding of the preference by the public, in general, toward giving money to young white kids. They felt bad about it, because they knew that they were in a world where they didn’t belong and stood out like sore thumbs.
For most people who will never partake in a program like this, homelessness and panhandling are mixed bags. On the one hand, people are more than likely to give someone some change if they think the subject is truly in need. However, you can’t help but think that consistent charity that is extended over time will contribute to “career homelessness,” which doesn’t really help anyone. Those who choose not to give money, in contrast, are not necessarily cold, unfeeling people. Rather, they are discouraged by the few bad apples who are generally belligerent or are in need of professional medical or psychological assistance. Those who are honestly trying to get out of their situation are then penalized. Finally, giving to organized charities is clouded by bureaucracy. Mere fractions of your dollars actually see their way into the hands of the deserving. So what is a caring citizen to do? I guess that’s up to you.