Last week we published a letter to the editor, titled “Send them on,” from a community member who complained about the “homeless, transients and panhandlers” in our town and asked why we don’t send them to another city. The letter elicited a spirited discussion on our website as well as a follow-up letter.
Some good points were brought out on both sides, but it is important to remember that the issue is a complex one. We can’t classify all “homeless, transients and panhandlers” in a single category.
As one commenter pointed out, there are people who are dishonest about how down on their luck they really are. They sit in a wheelchair with a sign saying “disabled and hungry” when in reality they are neither. Others falsely claim to be a veteran, to be stranded or to have a family to feed.
But the fact that there are some who are dishonest doesn’t mean every person who panhandles, asks for assistance from local charities or eats for free at Community Meals is not really disabled, hungry or struggling to feed their children. There are people in our community who are legitimately homeless and who struggle to get enough to eat each day.
It is also important to note that not everyone who causes trouble in our community is homeless and not everyone in our community who is homeless causes trouble. As several commented, “guy with the huge cart” is a friendly person who spends hours each day cleaning up the litter the supposedly constructive members of our community leave in our streets. Others quietly live out of their cars or in tents and never yell at anyone or pressure them for money.
On the other hand, some of the “transients” our letter writer complained about, who do the “meth ballet and crazy yoga” around town were actually born and raised in The Dalles. They have their own housing, are married or have family in town. Like it or not, this is their home too and we can’t just ship them off to another city because they have a mental illness.
It’s easy to look at the visible homeless in our community and say they should just get a job. But alcoholism, longtime drug addictions, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder from war or severe childhood abuse and other issues mean that holding a normal 8-5 job is not an option for some people in their current situation. The way our society has ruthlessly slashed mental health spending makes it difficult for those people to manage the factors that have lead to their homelessness and/or joblessness.
If we want to see fewer panhandlers, transients, homeless folks or disorderly conduct arrests around town we should combat the problem by trying to improve their situation, not just ship them off to another city.
Giving change to panhandlers isn’t the best way — the money might go for drugs and alcohol, the person might not actually be destitute and the change encourages people to hang out on street corners instead of going to an agency that could help them with more than just lunch money.
There are plenty of other ways we can help, though. We can volunteer for programs like Community Meals or donate to food banks and canned food drives, where we know our charitable effort is going toward feeding people. We can donate money to organizations like St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army, which can stretch our donation farther and make sure it’s going to someone truly in need.
How we care for the poor and needy says everything about the character of a community. The Dalles has earned a reputation for compassion, preferring to see the poor as human beings in difficult circumstances instead of just a blight to be swept under the rug.
In the end, many of us would rather err on the side of being too generous than not generous enough.