Tough Subject: Deciphering Homelessness

The other day I went with a friend to lunch at Panera. As we walked up to the entrance, we saw a man sitting on the bench by the door with his dog, an over-sized hiking bag, and a cardboard sign that read “Traveling to Maine” (we are in Upstate New York). Immediately, I was overcome with discomfort.

Then, I watched a woman hand him a $20 bill.

I want to give some more background. According to Nielsen’s zip code segmenting tool, the majority income of this area is $50,000 to $150,000+. There of course are people who live in poverty there, as there is in every city or town. I have never once seen a homeless person in this city but I’m not going to be ignorant and assume there are no homeless people in the area. I don’t know if he was homeless for sure though. His sign said he was traveling and I have no idea what his reason was for traveling. Maybe he has a home in Maine with family, who knows.

More background. I’d like to say I’m a decent person. Maybe I am to quick to judge in some cases. I know I could be more selfless. I am not a saint and I make mistakes.

Back to the story…

Panera was crowded with few available tables. Ironically, the table we chose was along the window where the man sat on the opposite side. By the time we sat down, the man had a bread bowl full of Panera’s delicious broccoli cheddar soup. I honestly have no idea whether he bought it or someone bought it for him. At first I had assumed someone had bought it for him since he was eating outside, but if I was in his position I would have done the same as I watched him share his meal with his dog.

As I ate my You Pick 2, my back was turned from an elderly couple. The elderly man narrated every move of the man outside of the restaurant. His wife repeatedly said, “Aw, that’s his best friend” as the man fed his dog. After they left, I found myself taking the elderly man’s role as I narrated the man’s actions to my friend who was just out of view of the man outside. I tried to stop but I couldn’t and I couldn’t stop glancing at him every once in a while.

I sympathized for him. Then I felt angry at allowing myself to feel bad for him.

His bag. His over-sized hiking bad didn’t appear to be in rough shape. It seemed clean and well kept. I did not notice any tears. And those things aren’t cheap.

His clothing. They weren’t stained. They weren’t full of rips and holes. He may have been wearing sweatpants but that’s besides the point. Who doesn’t own a pair of sweatpants? He was still well-clothed. I didn’t take note of his shoes though.

His phone. He had a cellphone. I watched him in astonishment as he made a call. It looked like an iPhone but having owned several, I think it was the TracFone version. But still, it’s a cellphone. It costs money to make phone calls.

His cigarettes. He was smoking Marlboro cigarettes. A pack of these cost almost $10.  This put me over the edge. If you are begging for money, how can you sit there watching dollars basically go up in flames by your choosing to smoke cigarettes? That money could have gone towards feeding yourself or your dog. If you are homeless, or just in need on money (who isn’t?), you have to make strategic decisions otherwise you could end up dead. Buying a $10 pack of cigarettes isn’t a smart decision.

His dog. This makes me the angriest. I am an animal lover, dogs especially. If you can’t afford to feed yourself or house yourself, on what planet do you think it is okay to own a dog? Okay maybe he had the dog before he went homeless (if he is homeless). Even then, if he really cared about the dog, he would have given it up for adoption so the dog could have gone to a family who can care for it appropriately.

So regardless of how wrong I feel it is to own a dog when you live on the streets. If a homeless person or a begger owns these objects, how can you trust them? I know the cost of cigarettes and a TracFone bill are minuscule compared to rent or a home. But it makes a difference. It provides doubt in their stories for people like me. Then there’s the dog again. Many pro beggers, who make a career out of pretending to be homeless, deceive naive people with dogs. Put a dog in the picture and people will melt in your hands. People love dogs. How could they say no to a drooling, smiling face of an adorable dog? We ridicule people who harm animals and leave them so if you walk past a dog in need, we as humans are likely to stop and help. These beggers know this. They aren’t stupid.

Maybe I’m stereotyping what a homeless person looks like and the way they act. And it is completely possible that this man genuinely cares about his dog. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling that if you are homeless, you should not own a dog. Give them a better chance at life if you can’t provide for them any longer. You at least have that option with pets.

Maybe I’m naive when it comes to homeless people. I grew up in a relatively low middle class area. Many people lived in crappy homes, falling apart at the seams. I did too. But no one was homeless. The first homeless person I had ever seen was in New York City, my freshmen year of college. He was sleeping on a bench. When I studied abroad, I saw countless homeless people on the streets of European countries. Maybe I’m ignorant because I try to avoid encounters with them.

The point to this is it is almost impossible to differentiate an honest homeless person from someone who is trying to deceive others for money. It hurts my heart. I would love to help someone in need but I do not want to help someone just steal my money or care. I think it is perfectly fine to help those in need, but how can you ever tell?

Before I end this, I would like to say I did a little research beforehand for this post, searching to see if others felt the same way and had written about it. I know people personally that do but I wanted to see what was out there on the subject. I came across others with the same puzzling question – how can you trust that a homeless person is genuine? I read some similar posts to mine and I read some with opposing views. But mostly I found tips for surviving homelessness. I felt a little guilty for my anger but I still am angry and will be every time I see someone with a pet who’s begging for money or evidently homeless.

The journalist inside of me wishes I would have talked to him. Asked him a few questions. Find out his story. But the realistic side of me is angry. I wouldn’t call me heartless though. I want to believe that he wasn’t faking it and he honestly does need the help. Moral of the story, society sucks because people can’t be honest.