An argument you hear often for not helping the homeless is that if you give them money, they just spend it on drugs or alcohol.
First of all, there are plenty of people homeless who aren’t drug addicts or alcoholics. It’s often hard to tell the difference.
Take my friend Steve. (For Austinites: he’s the little guy with the long beard who can usually be found at the corner of 6th Street and Mopac southbound, the one who looks like he stepped straight out of the movie Deliverance.) The way he looks–dirty, greasy unkempt long hair and beard and hand-me-down clothes, it’s easy to assume he’s an addict or an alcoholic.
And he used to be. That’s how he ended up homeless. But he hasn’t had a drink for eight years. He just lives outside with no access to a shower and clean clothes and what money he gets goes to food, not the hairdresser. You would look like him, too, if you had been on the streets for as long as he has. And like him, you’d always be hungry.
Then there’s Johnny (the equally little guy who can usually be found at the corner of the exit ramp from Mopac northbound and 360 northbound during morning rush hour, accompanied by his small dog Bo).
I haven’t known him as long as I’ve known Steve, but so far he’s always the same moodwise. He never seems out of it or hung over; if he drank or did drugs every night, he wouldn’t be at that traffic light every morning at 7:30. And he clearly takes good care of Bo.
Second, if you worry that money would go to drugs and alcohol, find other ways to help. If you are stopped at a light where the same homeless person stands every day, get to know them. Ask them what they need the most at that moment.
Steve needed newer pants, 28 waist. Frank needed newer shoes, size 11 1/2. Johnny can always use the small green propane tanks they sell in the camping section at Walmart. He walks with a limp and he can’t take the bus because the buses don’t allow dogs; the walk to Walmart is very long for him. With the cold we’ve been having, he uses a tank a night to keep Bo and himself warm. And he could really use some thermal underwear.
Whenever I ask a homeless person what they need the most right now, they never say they need a hit or a six-pack. Someone handed Steve half a bottle of wine the other day. He thanked the lady politely and poured it out in the gutter later.
So instead of feeling awkward pretending you don’t see the person standing feet away from you with a sign saying “Anything helps”, how about simply lowering your window, introducing yourself, asking for their name and how you can help.