I’ve read your column for years. Though I don’t always agree with you, I think your insights are valuable because you often help letter writers see their problem from another perspective or at the very least laugh. I often find your comments insightful and enlightening. Unfortunately, your January 6th answer to GENUINELY PUZZLED was truly upsetting.
The letter writer was confused about why a poor young couple with a baby and a toddler who were asking for help near a shopping center would refuse her offer of groceries and request cash instead. Your response assumed that the beggars were frauds who borrowed the children in order to raise more money. It may have been necessary to alert the writer to the reality of professional panhandlers, but it would have been more helpful to also include a charitable alternate view of their situation. Given our current economy, it is not fair to assume that every young family on the streets is there by choice and “doing quite well,” as you wrote.
I have been in Genuinely Puzzled’s situation, and I think she would have appreciated actual advice about how to really help families on the street instead of your professional blow-off. You mentioned that “Some families are truly in need and should be guided to a shelter so they can receive help getting back on their feet.” That is vague pabulum; you failed to suggest any real action that your letter writer (and readers) can take to prepare themselves by contacting local churches and community service organizations to find out what shelters and services exist in their area. Many groups have information cards and service coupons that can be given out instead of cash. Directly supporting such programs through financial support, advocacy and volunteering not only helps people escape homelessness, it can also be rewarding and eye-opening.
This couple said they wanted money to choose their own food and pay their phone bill. It’s their prerogative not to accept a gift that would have been more of a burden than the giver intended. From my conversations with people who are homeless or living in their cars, I have learned that groceries like fresh meat and pasta sauces are useless if you do not have a stove or refrigerator. They either spoil or become one more thing that must be carried. Canned soups like the letter writer mentioned are nutritious but heavy. Daily life in poverty, whether on the streets or in a shelter, is an obstacle course of conflicting rules, laws, schedules and expectations that even college students in a ‘guided experience of homelessness’ find difficult to bear. Your response made it sound as though living on the streets was a career choice, and I will admit that it provoked some rather uncharitable thoughts about you, your career and your privileged background. Then the picture below popped into my Facebook feed and made me think again:
A single advice column can not cure every social ill, and that is not your purpose or your job. Yet it is a shame that instead of educating your readers, you reinforced negative stereotypes that ultimately make it more difficult to provide help to people who have been made poor by circumstances not always within their control. I hope you will avoid this mistake in future columns.