t’s nearly 100 degrees in the mid-August Memphis sun. At the side of the exit ramp to Winchester Road from Bill Morris Parkway East, a middle-aged man sits on a bucket. He is wearing a clean white T-shirt, gray shorts and a faded orange cap partially covering his dirty blonde hair. He holds a large sign with block printed letters saying “ THROAT CANCER — NO OTHER INCOME”
Around his neck is what looks like a scarf but I recognize it as a white dressing holding a tracheostomy — a hole made in his windpipe to allow him to breath, likely due to throat cancer surgery.
His situation invokes sympathy. Do I give him a dollar, an amount it costs me to buy a bean burrito at the Taco Bell down the street or should I just drive by?
As I ponder, an arm extends out of the window of a brown Ford Taurus several cars in front of me. The man with the throat cancer quickly jumps off his bucket, grabs the money from the extended hand, and rushes back to the bucket. He has lots of energy for a “sick man,” I think.
This isn’t the first time I have seen him. In fact, he has been at this intersection for over a year. He is not alone: Our city has many panhandlers.
Last week a woman approached me at a gas station on Goodlet Road. She was carrying a 6-month-old baby. “Sir, my granddaughter just had heart surgery.” She pulled down the baby’s blouse to show me a well-healed mid-chest scar. “Can you spare money for gas.”
I wonder, should I swipe my credit card and let her fill her gas tank?
When I am traveling overseas, I see beggars. A 10-year-old girl with a newborn sibling on her hip knocks on my taxi window reciting the words, “Hello, hello hello, sir, sir, a dollar, a dollar.” Then there are lepers who refused to have treatment because they earn more income from the deformed, withered, numb fingers. What difference will it make to me if I offered them a dollar?
I have sympathy for the man with throat cancer, the grandmother with the baby with heart disease, the sibling caring for a newborn, and the leper with withered fingers. But it upsets me when they exploit their illness.
An illness is an undesired human condition. Nearly everyone sympathizes with the patient who is ill, yet the situation changes when one asks or demands sympathy. In fact, in these situations they have made their illness a marketing ploy for making money.
One day I approached the man holding the throat cancer sign and had a conversation. He lives with his girlfriend, says he “earns” $30-$40 a day, has Medicaid, and finds this “work” easier than finding a job. The Taco Bell down the street and other retail outlets are always looks for good help, I tell him.
We undoubtedly have poverty and homelessness here in Memphis and across the world. One out of three Memphians lives below the poverty line compared to 1 out of 6 nationally. Globally, there are 660 million people who live on less than $2 a day.
I don’t believe by giving money to panhandlers and beggars we solve the problem; rather, we may perpetuate it. As a society, we need to help such individuals find meaningful work.
Nashville, a sister city, which is growing by leaps and bounds, has found a way to care for its panhandlers and oftentimes homeless population. On a recent visit, I saw a somewhat disheveled man on the roadside with a yellow name tag around his neck. He was a vendor for the newspaper The Contributor. He sells the paper for two dollars and keeps $1.25 as his earning.
We may or may not be able to adopt a similar program in Memphis, but we need to address the problems of homelessness and panhandling. As a community we need to look for such small solutions or best practices near and far and bring them here.
A program that is working locally is Operation Stand Down Memphis, a nonprofit organization where veterans help homeless veterans, providing them with food, shelter, Veterans Affairs and Social Security benefits counseling, as well as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment. Such programs are having an impact. Over the past four-years, there are 25,000 fewer homeless veterans and the Obama administration has a goal to end chronic homelessness among veterans by 2015.
So each day, when I am driving by the panhandlers and beggars, I am sympathetic to their situation but I do not give money. I donate to a charity and pay my taxes and hope that tomorrow I may not have to see them on the streets. And I hope that they will not exploit their ill health, but rather recover and find meaningful work.
Source : Commercial Appeal