I originally wrote this post almost a month ago. I put a lot of work into it because it’s a subject I feel strongly about. It got really long, and I tried to pare it down for readability. Then I started second-guessing myself and my perspective and left it as an unpublished draft. I decided to revisit the topic today because I just re-applied for my food stamp benefits; it’s as yet unclear if I’ll be approved.
I’m homeless as of this writing. Not for the first time. I think this is like my fourth stint in ten years. That probably qualifies me as “chronically homeless,” for organizations that keep track of that sort of thing.
Most people don’t look fondly upon the homeless. To be fair, sometimes that animosity is warranted. In some regions, the street people are an aggressive and belligerent species. It’s true that many of these vagrants are addicts, and many have criminal records. A very great many have untreated mental illness. I’m not here to pretend that every homeless person is a misunderstood angel with a heart o’gold.
But Did We Have It Coming?
There’s a persistent belief among people who’ve never had this problem that if you’re homeless, you must’ve done something to deserve it. Therefore, since you brought this on yourself, you should get yourself out of it. Hoist ye those bootstraps. You should not expect or request any help or material assistance, other than food of course. Everyone needs to eat, after all. And if you’re really in need, if you’re truly struggling to survive, you should be grateful when someone offers you food, right?
Pardon me while grind my teeth.
Look, humans do indeed need to eat in order to not die. But here’s the thing: That’s not all we need. Unfortunately, for the most part, food’s the only thing most people are willing to donate.
A Dirty Little Secret
Here’s a fact that most social service organizations aren’t going to tell the general public:
There’s really no food shortage.
Nobody, at least in my area here in Florida, is actually going hungry. Even if you somehow don’t qualify for food stamps, all the homeless people know where to find provisions. The shelters all serve meals. I was just at the local Salvation Army trying to [blah blah something I’ll post about some other time] and they had PALLETS of surplus comestibles for dispersal. Churches have their own pantries of non-perishables. Soup kitchens and food banks abound, even in small-town regions (though more rural areas probably do have a harder time). The service centers and job boards hand out two-page, double-sided, single-spaced lists of all the places you can go for free food! It’s not always good food, but there is an abundance of it.
And all of these joints happily accept donations from nice people like you who want to help. But, and you might want to brace yourself, here’s what they’ll never say when you’re dropping off that about-to-expire can of green beans:
They often end up throwing a lot of food away.
I’m serious. I’ve stayed in the shelters and worked in the kitchens. I’ve been on donation-intake duty. We accepted every single gift, and we did it with a smile and a sincere-as-possible-sounding “Thank you so much!” Even to that one lady who brought, I shit you not, a plastic-wrapped paper plate with leftover Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes to the back door. My instructions were to express gratitude, because we didn’t want people to stop donating food, even if we had to toss it.
How Dare You Turn Your Nose Up!
Spare me. Please. Yes, wasted food is a tragedy. As a Christian who believes in good stewardship, I’m appalled at how much is thrown away in our country. But there are very real safety concerns when it comes to literally handing your table scraps to a homeless person. We have no way of knowing that half-eaten chicken sandwich isn’t chock full of salmonella because you forgot to refrigerate it. Or, in more sinister terms, deliberately poisoned because you’re pulling a Dickensian “reduce the surplus population” move on us.
Furthermore, even the sealed canned and jarred goods don’t last forever. They might still be edible for a while after the stamped expiration date, but then again they might not. If you think we should be grateful for that jar of salsa that was “best if used by” sometime last year, I would politely ask you to pull your head out of your ass and rethink that position.
Stores like Publix, Panera, Dunkin Donuts, Walmart, and many others routinely donate their day-old bread and pastries to churches and other facilities. We’re all glad they do this, and we don’t want them to stop, but…There’s often WAY more than can be reasonably consumed before they go bad too. At one large shelter, I had to gather up huge industrial-size garbage bags — bags and bags AND BAGS — of leftover bread every single week. We gave it all to a local pig farmer who faithfully pulled up with a trailer every Sunday, so we knew (or at least hoped) that most of it would get consumed instead of landfilled.
Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone
Most people really want to believe they’re doing a good thing by donating food to shelters and pantries. The truth is, many of those places are literally overflowing with more than they can distribute. But if you suggest that people give anything else, anything material or (God forbid) actual money, they’ll clench right up. “You can’t expect me to give [non-food item] to the homeless! They’ll use it to buy cigarettes and alcohol! They’ll just trade it for drugs!”
And you know what? They might.
“So they shouldn’t be spending my hard-earned money on things like that! They should be saving every penny! They should get a job and buy their own!”
Look. I have never smoked in my life. Not once. Never even tried a cigarette. I have never used or dabbled in any way with illegal drugs, though I’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities. Alcohol, not gonna lie, that I’ve done, but I haven’t touched a drop in over thirteen years. I used to judge the vagabond smokers and drinkers too, until I found myself in the shelter system.
Newsflash: Being Homeless Sucks.
Regardless of what you “did” to “deserve” it or how you got there, it’s utterly demoralizing and dehumanizing and degrading. And? The longer you’re stuck in it, the harder it is to get yourself out, no matter how hard you’re really, sincerely trying, including applying for all the jobs. I’m saying that as an affirmed non-substance-user.
When I’m around a fellow displaced person, I no longer begrudge their waste of five bucks on a pack of cigarettes. I don’t care if they blow $7.99 on a sixpack of Bud to help themselves cope. It’s literally not going to make a difference in their life to “save” those few dollars. Save it for what? One one-hundredth of a month’s rent for an apartment they don’t have and will not have for the foreseeable future?
All the time, in online communities and in real life, when I hear people talking about the homeless, there’s always some douchebag who crows about offering food to panhandlers. “I told that guy I’d buy him a sandwich and soup, or a value meal from McDonald’s, but he just walked away! That proves they’re all just trying to get drug money!”
The odds are very, very good that those “choosing beggars” you taunt with meals do not actually need food. They may indeed be looking to score some sort of substance with which to escape their misery, but food’s the least of their worries.
It’s definitely the least of mine right now.
I don’t need soup and a sandwich. Nor do I need a stiff drink or a bowl of the ganja. I need, in approximate order of urgency:
- A JOB, one that I can perform SITTING DOWN, preferably in front of a computer, because my legs won’t hold me upright longer than twenty minutes at a time, tops.
- SEVERAL HUNDRED DOLLARS to somehow materialize in order to keep my car from getting repossessed and to get my auto insurance and driver’s license unsuspended.
- HEALTHCARE, like a way to see a doctor or two and also a therapist who can maybe treat some of my physical and mental problems and perhaps counsel me with some practical advice for not killing myself that doesn’t entail Baker Acting me because a freaking ambulance and ER bill on top of all my other bills WILL NOT HELP RIGHT NOW.
- GAS for the car while I still have one. Fuel cards are a Godsend.
- HYGIENE PRODUCTS, because I have been RATIONING MY TAMPONS for the past four months and using folded up paper towels from public restrooms after the first day or two of each menstrual period.
- A HOME (this is less of a need than a wish), with a BED to sleep in, as opposed to a plastic mat in a dorm full of crazies where they kick you out every morning before daybreak. Note that this is LAST on my list. At this point, I don’t even really want it since I need ALL OF THE ABOVE so much more.
Many other homeless people need the same stuff, some more than others. A lot of them don’t even have the privileges that I have, like a car to sleep in or a gym to shower at. I’d argue that most of them need healthcare above all else, but this is America where that’s a privilege and not a right, so whattayagonnado?
My point being, food isn’t even on most homeless people’s radar as a need. We’re scrounging for other things. Please think before you offer food, and please pray before you judge. Maybe even try asking them, kindly: “What do you REALLY need?”
(Disclaimer in advance of “You don’t know that people aren’t going hungry!” comments: I haven’t been everywhere. I don’t know everything. I’m aware that “food deserts” exist, mostly in more rural areas. Speaking only from my own experience, I do know there’s a LOT of food out there. Also, “food insecure” as defined by various governmental reports does not equal “actually going without food.”)
(Additional disclaimer after sitting on this post for a few weeks: I fully acknowledge that there are Bad People Who Game The System out there. They exist and they ruin social service programs for everyone. I just don’t believe the truly needy should be denied help on the basis that “they might use it to get something they don’t deserve and shouldn’t have.”)