Stories from my life and travels as an American expat in Germany. Awkwardness guaranteed!

Have a Heart

Have a Heart

By now, most Americans are coming to the realization that “trickle down economics” do not work, and have nearly obliterated the middle class. The deep tax cuts Reagan set in place have benefited only the wealthiest among us, creating an ever-growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Reagan’s economic policies may have “stimulated the economy” in the short-term, but they ended up ballooning our National Debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion. What do you expect, when the top tax rate drops from 74% to just 38%? Like them or not, taxes keep our infrastructure intact, our National Debt down, and our social safety nets in place.

Speaking of social safety nets: Reagan also made deep and brutal cuts to welfare, low-cost housing, and other social programs utilized by the poor to keep themselves off the streets. Although there have always been homeless people, the number of those sleeping on the streets made a sharp increase towards the end of Reagan’s presidency. In fact, “…by the late 1980’s [the number of homeless] had swollen to 600,000 on any given night – and 1.2 million over the course of a year.”

In 1980, Reagan also ended funding for federal community mental health centers. It is true that many psychiatric hospitals were dangerous and inhospitable places, but reform (and a continuation of funding) would have far better served the mentally ill men and women who were forced onto the streets by Reagan’s budget cuts. Indeed, 20 to 25% of our homeless population is mentally ill.

Now, obviously, we can’t lay the entire blame for our current homelessness epidemic at Reagan’s feet. Homelessness will always be a problem, so long as basic needs like shelter, food, toiletries, and health care come with a price tag. Perhaps someday in the (very) distant future, when we are so technologically advanced that all our needs can be freely met, there will be an end to homelessness. However, the current reality is that there are an estimated 500,000 homeless people in the USA that urgently need our help.

Just this past Summer, my boyfriend and I witnessed two different groups walking a block ahead of us, laughing and pointing at an elderly homeless woman sprawled out on the sidewalk. Their assumption was that she was laying down because she was drunk, but it was obvious to us that she was trying to find shade from the oppressive heat; it was over 90 degrees that day. We bought her food and a Gatorade, and asked several times if she was feeling OK. She declined our offer to call an ambulance, and I still wonder to this day if it was the right choice not to call anyone.

I thought of her this past Saturday, when we rode our bikes past another rail-thin woman laying immobile in the middle of the sidewalk. Businesswomen walking by weren’t just going around her, they were stepping over her. We went a block up to the nearest police officer, hoping that someone could check on her and make sure she was all right. Again, I have to wonder if I did the right thing. The officer herself seemed compassionate, but would the person she called to check on the woman be so kind, or would they callously ask her to move off the sidewalk, treating her like a nuisance instead of a human being?

Everyone has an anecdotal story about how they, their uncle, or their brother’s friend’s cousin, has witnessed a supposedly “fake” homeless person begging for money and then getting into a nice car and driving away. It’s a nice little story to tell yourself when you want to justify your inclinations to ignore a homeless person, but it’s little more than that: a story. No one is getting rich off of panhandling, and if there are fakers out there, they likely comprise nothing but a small fraction of the homeless you see on a daily basis. It is just not feasible to look at the numbers on homelessness and come to the conclusion that the majority (or even half) are merely pretending.

To those of you who only give food or water, please try not to feel offended or suspicious if your offering is rejected. For one, dietary restrictions don’t go away when you become homeless; you can still be diabetic, have Crohn’s, IBS, etc.

Furthermore, humans have other basic needs besides food and water. Money can also go towards toiletries, feminine hygiene products, a night in a motel or pay-shelter, warmer clothing, and countless other necessities. If you’re still afraid to give money, you can always ask what necessities they need and buy a few for them.

If you can give, give; but if you can’t, that’s OK. Up to 40% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, meaning they may be only a few months of unemployment away from homelessness themselves. Besides, there are other ways you can help, and I don’t just mean volunteering at soup kitchens or donating old clothes. Vote in your local elections. Prevent callous politicians from enacting policies that jail people for panhandling, and protest hostile architecture that leave the homeless with nowhere to sleep when shelters are full. Help end laws that make it illegal to hand out food to the homeless; better yet, vote to prevent them from ever being enacted in the first place.

At the very least, please take a moment to make eye contact with the person asking for your help, and ask them how they’re doing. I understand that this is tough. I still struggle and sometimes fail at this, myself. When you do not have anything to spare, it is hard to have to look someone in the eye and tell them sorry, but you have nothing to give; especially when that person has even less than you, and their begging is a reminder of your own privilege. Indeed, research by Harris and Fisk has shown that it’s not just guilt that makes us look away; some of us actually view the homeless as though they’re not even human. That is honestly one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

So, please: say hello. Acknowledge your fellow man. Be the one person today that shows some compassion.

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