Yesterday at the grocery store, the clerk asked if I would like to donate my bag credit to charity. Sure, why not. I said that the store should donate the money to the large numbers of homeless parents and children I have seen around the city in the last few months. The clerk said, “Well, they could go to a shelter. They just choose not to because they make more money begging.”
Her attitude bothered me a lot, and it is typical of many who see homeless people and presume that their way is the only way and that if the poor person just did what they were “supposed to” then maybe things would be different. It’s such a paternalistic, patronizing view. It presumes so much and absolves personal responsibility, not of the poor person, but of the holder of the opinion.
Just because someone is homeless, it does not mean that person is stupid, made poor choices, deserves it, etcetera. In today’s economy, where the super wealthy have gotten away with robbing us blind and they use our assumptions about the poor against us to achieve their agenda, slipping from the middle class to homelessness is not such a stretch. I see it all the time. In just the last two months, I have had six chapter 13 clients who had to convert or modify their plans because their employers laid them off or cut their income in half. Does this make my clients stupid, their choices poor, do they deserve it? No. The longer we keep blaming the victims, the longer we will allow what is happening to our world continue to happen.
I responded to the grocery clerk that just because there are shelters doesn’t mean the person can get into them. Having a child is not a sure thing. Shelters are full. Shelters are not easy to come by. But I realized after I left that this had been the wrong answer. What I should have said instead was, “So what? Just because they are poor, they have to take your version of how they receive a handout for their homelessness to be acceptable? Who are you to decide that your way is the only way for them? Why is it that because they are homeless they suddenly accede the self and the right to make those choices? Why isn’t making more money begging an acceptable choice, and how is that different than you choosing a different job because you might earn more? Why shouldn’t they be able to make that choice if it gets their child fed?”
I didn’t say this. As is often the case, I thought of the best answer after I was gone. I should have said it, and next time I will. We have got to change the supercilious theory that because someone is poor they deserve it. And in today’s climate, we should all be thanking the heavens and saying to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s a slippery slope and it doesn’t take much to end up at the bottom of it, especially in this country where we give billions to banksters while we scold poor people for using food stamps. It’s truly obscene.