Thursday, July 10, 2014

An Encounter

Uptown Transit Bus Station, Minneapolis, MN

"Ma'am!  Ma'am!  Can you help me?"

I stopped to listen to the African American woman sitting on the bench at the Uptown Transit bus stop.  Other people kept walking.  She was barefoot, wearing black polyester pants and a skin tight green tank top.  She was significantly overweight, but I wouldn't say obese.  Her teeth were very white, and her eyes clear.

"Ma'am, do you know if there's a women's shelter nearby?"

My attention sharpened.  Was she in trouble?  Trying to escape a bad home situation?  I didn't know of any women's shelter in that neighborhood.  In fact, I didn't know where any women's shelter was located in the Twin Cities.  I was about to suggest calling the police when she asked me:

"Do you know if there's a food kitchen nearby?  Someplace I could get something to eat?"

No, not in that neighborhood, but I suggested the one I knew downtown.

"That's all full up."

Really?  I started to feel a gentle mental jab: maybe she was a panhandler.  Even if the food kitchens downtown were full, they'd suggest someplace else for her to go, not just say they're full. They try to help people.

"Is there a church in this neighborhood that serves free food?"

Oh, good question.  No, I didn't know of one nearby.  I began to feel terribly uninformed.  I'm like most people, I think.  I want to help if I can, and if I can't, I feel bad about it.

"Ma'am, I haven't had anything to eat for 3 days.  And I'm diabetic.  Could you spare anything so I can get something to eat?"

Was this her actual goal?  Was she panhandling?  While I'm trying to figure out how to find out where she can get a free meal, she's assessing how to ask me for money.  My hesitation prompted her to say:

"Just anything.  A little so I can buy a donut."

That clinched it for me.  I told her if she's a diabetic, she doesn't want to eat a donut after three days of nothing to eat.  I was also thinking that she looked remarkably good, with good energy, for someone who was in need of food.  No, no money from me.  I walked away.

How do you know if someone asking for help is a panhandler or really needs the help?  I was on my way to meet a friend when I encountered this woman at the bus stop.  I told my friend, who works in a hospital emergency room, about the encounter.  She talked about similar encounters she's had, and the people who've come into the ER panhandling.  Usually the people with a polished narrative are the panhandlers.  The problem is that panhandlers are usually destitute and homeless but the reason for the problems is not because they lost their house in foreclosure or their job.  They are usually using illegal drugs, especially crack, or abusing alcohol and any money they manage to collect goes for buying more.

Another friend, a diabetic, told me yesterday that a diabetic who hadn't had any food and no insulin for 3 days would need to eat protein.  No matter what kind of diabetic, though, it's bad to eat sugar after a long time without eating.  He also shared with me that people like that woman postpone hitting bottom by panhandling.  They need to hit bottom so they'll admit they have a problem and finally ask for the help they truly need to get back on their feet.  Giving them money is not really helping them.

Everyone I talked with about this encounter said much the same thing: don't give the panhandlers money.  Give them information, if anything, about local services to help them.  My ER friend told me that most panhandlers already know all about those services -- they've used shelters, food kitchens, job training, and other services -- but what they really want is to stimulate the pleasure center in their brains.

Minneapolis is now running a panhandling awareness campaign for the downtown area.  It's in effect now but when another such program was  implemented a few years ago, the panhandlers simply moved south on Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues.  Uptown Transit Station is on Hennepin Avenue. I now know that there's a church four blocks from this bus stop that has a food kitchen and a social services center for the homeless.  Next time....

Update: I wanted to share an exchange about this blog post that's happened on Facebook:

Jenny McDermott
I'm very skeptical about this. they want to "stimulate the pleasure center in their brains?" How did the person quoted reach that conclusion? I have no way of knowing the motivations of complete strangers, and neither does anyone else. I give panhandlers money because they may in fact be hungry, homeless, whatever. If they fool me into giving them something, well then, that wasn't the first time I was fooled and it won't be the last. I'd rather be a fool than a grinch. This whole screed sounds like a rationalization for some form of social Darwinism.

Cinda Yager The person who said that quote, Jenny, was referring to the drug addicts who panhandle and who will use the money to buy drugs, thus stimulating the pleasure center in their brains. A good meal also will stimulate the brain's pleasure center but they're not thinking that way. If I had the money to be a fool, I'd happily be a fool, too, but I'm not interested in helping drug addicts feed their addiction. No, it's not a rationalization for social Darwinism, it's a question of helping to feed a destructive addiction or helping someone get back on his or her feet. I'd rather do the latter, not the former. Unfortunately, it can be really difficult to tell which you're confronted with when someone approaches you on the street...which usually results in me agonizing over my decision not to give money, even a little so a diabetic can be sugar! (smile)

Jenny McDermott But how do you tell the difference between drug addicts and non-addicts? Do you have some instant drug test kit you whip out and wave over the person? 

Scott Pakudaitis I knew a panhandler was asking for drug money when she complained about being hungry and then refused my repeated offers to buy her something to eat from any of the three places right next to her.

Cinda Yager @Jenny, as I wrote: " Unfortunately, it can be really difficult to tell which you're confronted with when someone approaches you on the street...which usually results in me agonizing over my decision not to give money, even a little so a diabetic can be sugar! (smile)" But I like Scott's solution! Bravo. I actually thought much later the other day that I should have taken her by the hand and walked her to Lund's, which was a block away, and bought her some nutritious food there, then I'd KNOW what my money was being spent on. If she'd refused that offer, it'd be more certain, but not completely, that she was more interested in money than food.

Jenny McDermott OK, that works.

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