I don't do chain letters. When I got one from a good friend who thought it might move me, I did not pass it on. It had the usual chain letter thing at the end, send it to five of their friends to make their day. The story didn't move me to tears and make me want to join a church. It scared me.
There's this person probably living in a middle class house, probably never been financially strapped beyond running out of pocket money and outgrew that. The one and only time in her life that she helped out homeless men with their breakfast floored her. She'd never actually done anything like that before. Then when she does, she gives them a sermon. If they were Christian, that's great, it takes the edge off it being patronizing when she credits God for it.
But if they're not, it's something they smile and put up with and lie through their teeth to get a meal. And she thinks it's so wonderful and rare that she's got to turn it into a chain letter. Is she actually going to start making a habit of it?
Is she making such an enormous sacrifice by smiling at people who smell bad because they don't have access to a shower? She could have invited them over to let them shower, put their clothes through the washing machine, hired them for work around the house.
Real generosity would've been "I've got a basement that really needs sorting and cleaning out. I'll give you $10 an hour and you can get first pick on the yard sale items if you take the job. It's sweaty work, so if you want, you can use the shower and washing machine while you're over here."
The greatest gift you can give a homeless man is work. They are driven by the same work ethic as most Americans and the custom of "blame the victim" runs so deep that they get shamed all the time. The reactions of everyone in McDonalds in the story was typical, they stared at the letter writer in shock and the homeless men in disgust.
The letter writer, having given them one meal rambles off into telling the world about how very very Christian she is and show off. She got her money's worth for those breakfasts. For the price of holding her nose and remembering a religious custom she can now establish herself as a Good Person to thousands of people she doesn't know, friends of friends of friends.
There isn't even a call to action to do the same thing. The call to action is to pass on the chain letter, read about it and turn Christian. This is the flavor that makes Christian Brand Charity such a humiliating process. Oh, and they were obviously white homeless men. She didn't react that way to the scary black homeless men, if they even dared to come into that McDonalds.
For me it's every day. If I'm not broke, whenever I see a homeless person in my neighborhood I share a buck or so, sometimes more if I'm flush. I've skipped my snack because an old black man in a wheelchair asked if I had any change. "No, but I've got a dollar." I get out my wallet and give him a dollar. I don't stop at the Paradise because it was budgeted for my snack. I know that this is my turn, I'm paying it forward. I grin at him and say "I been there, I've only been on Social Security the past five years."
Sometimes they thank God. I smile like a Unitarian and don't preach at them that I'm doing it for Goddess or as a secular humanist. They've got enough troubles without a lecture about religion. I don't lecture anyone on that because it's their lives and their soul. I don't know what religion means to them, I could be spitting on their lifeline if I do. I only know what it means to me and what it feels like to endure religious spam when I'm starving.
Instead I just ask how they're doing, wish them luck, if I've got time (and I usually do) open up a conversation. Give them a break and some real social contact. Some of the people panhandling in my city aren't even homeless. They live on benefits, can't quite make ends meet and pick up that little extra that lets them eat all month instead of just when the check comes in. Others are so isolated living in SRO housing that panhandling becomes a way to meet people and a reason to get out of their rooms.
Sometimes they talk to me about life, about benefits or about how San Francisco was so awesome in the sixties and the seventies. They've been here all along and they fall through the cracks. There's nowhere to go if they're on general assistance or if they're waiting for Social Security or waiting for a pension.
They see where I live and tell me where the food banks are. We're all the same community. The generosity of the blue eyed man in the story toward his mentally impaired companion is common. That's like me and my neighbors in the SRO. Occasionally someone knocks on my door and asks if I have any food. I'll share, because I've gotten good enough at shopping and budgeting to have enough bulk stuff around I could spare something for them.
Then sometimes I'll meet someone in the hall asking "Do you want a loaf of bread?" Or "I've got some chicken in my room, got it from Meals on Wheels, you want it?" My neighbors feed me too. It's reciprocal. I've been deeply grateful since there do come times when the check is a bit too far away and I don't have anything in my room that doesn't need cooking.
I don't think the story means nice guys don't win or that empathy keeps you out of the upper crust. I think it's that people with empathy handle homelessness better and find it easier to survive the streets. The mean ones get in fights and get themselves in jail. Loners crawl off and have a much harder time of it because they aren't getting help from the street.
Or they drink and keep using the alcohol-addiction resources to get along.
In shelters the mean ones turn up but the guys with signs asking for work or food are usually the more sociable and friendly people who had hard luck. That letter writer was so shocked at the blue eyed man's generosity. It doesn't fit the profile. It's not what she expected for someone who doesn't have money to have e heart. Bad things do happen to good people.
I guess maybe that's why the story makes an impact on the socially sheltered. Maybe that was its point. "OMG someone who doesn't bathe or work actually cares about someone else. Maybe that's why he's not working, he looks after the mentally impaired guy."
What he needs is a place to crash that doesn't treat him like a juvenile delinquent. Work that he can do in emergencies and get paid for so that he's still got his self respect and doesn't get looked down on by insulated middle class people. Open markets where he can sell stuff he scrounges or gets given. Co-ops where he can own his work.
My city is of two minds about homeless people. We have the same divide on that as the rest of the country. Wealthy community developers gentrify old quaint low income neighborhoods and introduce Sit-Lie laws - you can't sit down on Market Street. Oh but I'll bet that some exhausted tourist who has money and sits down on the street because she's got a disability gets a different explanation than a confused local senior who can't stay on his feet long enough.
SF does a lot of things right. The Sit-Lie law is a blotch on our civic honor. It runs against everything we stand for.
Currently a new program is being started, where panhandlers are offered the chance to participate with animal shelters in a dog training program. They get $50-$75 a week, the supplemental money they need to survive on benefits. The dogs are company and they're allowed to adopt the animal if they don't want to give it up. Walking the dogs serves the same purpose of getting out onto the street and meeting people, socializing and having something to do.
So the dog program is a good thing, but Sit-Lie has got to go. Other city programs need to come in to really get the homeless off the streets and create livable, low-income housing and emergency housing for no-income people. I've been no-income people more years than I had SSI, so I know that's its own terrible gap. It's too easy to die waiting for SSI if you don't have supportive family who can afford to take you in or friends willing to let you crash.