Looking Homeless

I sometimes regret choosing /HelpTheHomeless for our Facebook Group URL.
It does let people know that we work with the needy (MUCH better than “1st Saturdays” does).
But our organization is really more focussed on gifting & connecting with anyone in need.
They don’t have to be homeless.

Plenty of people are who are living in shelters (or even have homes) are living in such poverty that shopping for new clothes is not an option. We want to provide a joyful, dignified shopping experience at our “Street Boutique” to them.
We tell the volunteers not to judge if people need or deserve help.
We do want to make sure we have enough clothes and food for everyone, but as long as everyone is provided for, we don’t need to qualify anyone or even limit how much they take.
it is interesting how people react when they see people in line who don’t “look” homeless.
There is a romantic notion of giving food to the poor. Of helping a poor wretched soul.
And it does feel pretty awesome to extend a hand to someone who *clearly* needs it.
But there are many people in need who don’t look dirty or stereotypically homeless.
In fact, with an understanding of the resources in San Diego (and I would hope in most big cities) it is possible to get a shower, regular meals and be able to present oneself quite respectfully. (Throw in some fancy new 1st Saturdays clothes and you could look pretty slick.)
My experience has been that the people who “look homeless” usually fall into 1 of 2 categories. First are the mentally disconnected. People with schizophrenia or another mental illness that makes them unable to function and follow rules or instructions. Or people so addicted to drugs or alcohol that they disregard basic hygiene.
The second are people who have jobs as panhandlers. If your livelihood depends on people feeling sorry for you, then you have to play the part. People instantly make a judgement that “they don’t look like they need it” and are less inclined to give money.
I personally do not give money to those begging for it. That is not to say I do not give money to those in need. But I do not want to encourage the behavior and support the occupation of panhandling. Panhandling can be a fairly lucrative if you look dirty enough and can elicit enough sympathy.
But the big problem for me is that panhandling turns the act of gifting into a transaction. A panhandler expects you to feel bad so you’ll give money to ease your guilt or sympathetic pain.
Easing a bad feeling is a different than creating a good feeling. Good feelings happen when you have a gifting interaction, instead of a transaction.
I urge you to try this yourself: Keep a couple $5 bills in your pocket as you walk downtown. Give one of the bills to someone who asks you for money. Give the other to someone didn’t ask for it.
(Many people are socialized to be too proud to accept unearned money, so I usually say with a smile, “I just found this on the ground. It must be yours.”)
Notice how different the 2 experiences feel. Your results may differ, but I find that giving to a panhandler never feels very good. I am simply playing my role in the transaction. I pay my money and receive minor relief from feeling bad for this person. It is a transaction and it is often as cold as when I pay the meter in exchange for a parking spot.
The only way to elicit real gratitude is to gift an amount ($20 or more) that is beyond their expectation. And that is really what makes it a transaction instead of a gift: The expectation.
NOTE: I never want to ignore or dehumanize anyone so I do try to respond verbally to requests with a cheerful, “Not today.”
But when you give to someone out of the blue, it is a Gift.
And it doesn’t even really matter if they “need” it or not. (Ideally they should “want” it, however. An unwanted gift is not a gift.)
If you have ever gifted, or received, a cup of coffee from the person in front of you in line, you know how awesome that feels. It is jarring in the best of ways.
“Wait…what? You are allowed to do that?!”
Yes, you are allowed to show kindness even when people have not proven they need or deserve it. Even when it is not a transaction.
In fact it is this non-transaction Gifting that creates the explosive feelings of joy that can create chain reactions.
More times than not, when someone gets their toll road or their coffee paid for, they buy one for the next person.
One Starbucks drive-through reported that the pay-it-forward chain continued for 8 hours until they closed.

And every single person who received a coffee also received something much more significant: a demonstration of non-transactional gifting. The experience of receiving something unearned. The realization that the world is not as selfish and competitive as we convince ourselves. That people are kind and giving. And, hopefully that you, too, are kind and giving.
And shifting how you see yourself in relationship to the people around you can be deeply transformational.
Not just the homeless, but everyone.
And then, it doesn’t matter how dirty the person is or what their story is. It is just a fellow human who will appreciate your kindness.

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