I am not your Teaching Moment

I’ve recently come across two well-meaning but horribly misguided posts concerning homeless people and I’d like to discuss them here. The first deals with a care package and the things it can contain. I’ll explain why some of the things inside aren’t a very good idea.

blessing-bag-contents21

“Blessing Bags” to keep in the car when you pass homeless people. Something special you can do with your children or grandchildren to teach them about caring/giving for those in need!
Gallon Size Ziplock bags
Chap stick
Packages of tissues
Travel size toothbrush and toothpaste
Travel size mouthwash
Comb
Soap
Hotel size shampoos
Trail mix
Granola bars
Fruit cups
Crackers
Pack of gum
Band aids
Coins or predetermined dollar amount, say 5.00 (could be used to make a phone call, or purchase a food item)
Hand wipes
You could also put in a warm pair of socks
A packet rain poncho
Tampons (for women)

The ideas could be endless!

Assemble all the items in the bags, and maybe throw in a note of encouragement. Seal the bags and stow in your car for a moment of providence…or….drop some off at a food shelter place.

The toiletries and socks are a great idea. Those are always needed. Feeling clean and warm is so important in feeling human. The menstrual products are a good idea too, although I would suggest asking the person you intend to give them to if they’d prefer pads. Foods like the ones in this list and shown in the above picture are good to donate to food shelters, but they should be avoided as hand outs because you never know what allergies a person may have. Sure, they could just say no thanks, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t take very kindly to a homeless person refusing help. Even if it could be something that could potentially kill them. Giving money, or if you feel weird about that, offering to buy the person some food is usually a better way to go.

I would rather not be used as a lesson in kindness for your children. I’m a person, not a teaching moment. It feels incredibly condescending to me. “Here’s this person that needs help, let me parade them in front of Jimmy so he can see just how kind I am? Aren’t I kind? Where is my kindness cookie?” It feels like you aren’t helping us because you want to, but rather because of how much you can pat yourself on the back afterwards. Which brings me to this post I found on Facebook. It’s a pretty long post and I’ll be addressing the points that I feel miss the mark, to put it kindly.

I spent Friday on the streets of Portland and learned so much. Here it is:

1. It’s not a big deal to hold a sign asking for money, because everyone ignores you. I found an unoccupied corner right off 405 and stood there for an hour holding a sign saying ‘Local business owner trying to understand our homeless problem. All funds to be donated’. Nobody made eye contact with me. They fiddled with the radio, texted, looked everywhere else. I did make $25.52 in that hour, thanks mostly to one woman that gave me $20. All the people that gave me money were women. I plan on donating $250 to Sisters Of The Road in honor of this experience.

To the people who stand out in whatever weather with their signs, it’s a big deal. Whether they’re ignored or not. Feeling ignored isn’t a very nice feeling especially when you’re in such a vulnerable position like asking for money from complete strangers. 

3. I saw a man washing his clothes in the Saturday Market fountains. He then laid them out to dry in the sun. They looked great! I was impressed.

You’d be surprised how crafty and resourceful homeless people become. 

4. I had some wonderful conversations with complete strangers. I wore my ‘Kindness Matters’ t-shirt and a woman commented that kindness is often mistaken for weakness and we had a deep 5 minute conversation on the philosophy of kindness on a street corner. I now also know everything about poodles, the breakdown of society in Somalia and the different types of immigrants (economic and political). These were deep, smart conversations.People are very lonely and just wanted someone to listen.

So then they’d become bit players in your pat-on-the-back story of kindness. She had a FIVE minute conversation but it was so deep, y’all.

5. It’s exhausting being homeless. My body hurts from walking and carrying a backpack. There’s nowhere comfy to just relax. By 4pm, I was exhausted and took a nap on a park bench. All of these years, I thought that the people sleeping on the sidewalk in the day time were just totally strung out druggies. I’m sure some are, but the people I met told me that they sleep during the day because it’s safer. They can’t rest as deeply at night and they are tired! After one day out there, I was grumpy, tired and dehydrated. It sucks! I can’t imagine the toll that a week out there would take on a body and spirit.

Oppression is not a costume. At the end of your day, you were able to go home and eat well, sleep in your bed and not worry if you’d eat the next day. Homeless people do not get that luxury. How incredibly generous of you to concede that not all homeless are “druggies”. So what, should those particular homeless people with drug addictions not be given the same consideration? This is why I’m wary of this post. When you so flippantly refer to people with an illness as “druggies”, you’re only adding to the stigma. 

7. Nobody tried to sell me drugs but 3 people asked me if I had some for sale.

Explain how and why this is relevant.

8. I fell in love with Portland in a whole new way. This city is alive and I felt alive in it. I saw a TV show taping, dancing in Directors Park, a dude beautifully playing a flute in front of Powells, three different music acts at the Bite, a miniature stonehenge made out of bananas, numerous history plaques, another band and the movie Grease on Pioneer Square. I walked by hundreds of people on their phones missing the whole thing.

 This sounds a lot like a platitude. There is no beauty in homelessness.

10. There are different groups of homeless. There are those interested in drugs down on the waterfront, there are those with mental illness wondering around everywhere, but most of those I met were having a crisis of spirit and trying to find themselves. There was an executive from Seattle whose life fell apart when his wife left him and he is trying to pick up the pieces. There were many people here from other cities because Portland is a great place to be homeless. I understand this after spending a day falling in love with the city too.

Drug addiction is a mental illness, dearie. “Portland is a great place to be homeless”, this is where I would flip my laptop over but I won’t because I can’t afford a new one. Listen, there is NOWHERE ON THIS EARTH where it is great to be homeless. There may be places where there is better access to resources and help, but that does not mean that it’s a great place to be homeless. You spent one day out in the city. You do not know anything about being homeless. You spoke to a few people, but you haven’t spent days starving, wearing the same clothes, hoping someone, just anyone will give you a few bucks for a cup of coffee. You know nothing, Renee Spears. 

11. What can we as a city do? Clearly we need to address the bigger issues of poverty, mental illness and addiction but we can do better right now. We need more public restrooms. There aren’t enough and they are too far apart. We need more water fountains. We need a public laundromat and bathing facility. We need a public place for people to come in from the elements and relax in safety. We need a place for people to store their belongings so they don’t have to carry them around all day, and it litters up our city.

Finally, something we can agree on. I’d also add that we need to talk about sexism, racism, bigotry against LGBT folks, especially LGBT youth who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

13. I ended up going home in the early morning hours. My intention was to learn from the people there and I did that. I didn’t feel unsafe for one minute. I found the people kind and friendly. I wondered what would change if we all just opened our eyes to what is happening instead of ignoring it.

We are not your teaching moment. We are not your inspiration porn. We are not your feel good moment. We are people. It is incredibly condescending to think that you know anything about what it’s like to be homeless. Your social experiment has a lot in common with the social experiments of the woman who put on a fat suit to see what it was like experiencing fatphobia, John Howard Griffin putting on black face, non-Muslim women wearing hijab to “experience” anti-Muslim bigotry, men wearing skirts and heels to see what is like to be a woman and rich folks going on so-called Food Stamps diets. They’re offensive because however well-intention they may be intent isn’t magic. You all get to take off the fat suit, the hijab, the skirts; you get to go home to a warm bed and a stocked fridge. You don’t know what it’s like to live in the oppression you wear as costume because for you, it’s just that, something you can take off at the end of your experiment. For me and others, it’s our whole life.

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