My first memories were probably not unlike yours. I was a child riding in the passenger seat of my mother’s car when I saw an older man with a big beard hunched on the side of the road off the exit of the interstate on the south-side of Atlanta. I didn’t understand, of course. He had a sign on cardboard and a cup and a dejected look. Mom said he was probably a veteran from the Vietnam War. That were many like him, she said.
I was in the later days of high school when we, as a group of friends, begin to adventurously make forays into the city from our suburban enclaves. We walked through Centennial Olympic Park in the downtown area of Atlanta for two reasons, 1. It was fairly new. 2. We didn’t know where else to go besides Café Innermezzo, Little 5 Points, and the airport. There’s great people watching in the airport, and those were still in the days when you could walk to and fro throughout the entire monstrosity without anyone caring.
A man walked up to us in the park. He started to tell a story. It was a long story about coming and going and needing to get into the shelter. We stopped and engaged him in the conversation because we had heard of these things happening and we also had some ideas about how good we were as people. These kinds of talks were the kinds of things that went along with believing you were a particularly good person.
It turned out that the man could not only quote to us John 3:16, but verse 17 as well. I was impressed. Eventually, he asked us to contribute some money, and we all dutifully added some to the pot. There was the end of that conversation, but the beginning of hundreds more similar encounters, encounters and conversations and moments that you are probably very familiar with. Gateway Center is an active leader in bridging the gap of understanding in our community in relation to issues of poverty and homelessness. When we speak and answer questions, the questions often lead towards panhandling and how to respond.
The comments are usually anticipated as we are fairly aware of these feelings.
“Aren’t they just going to spend it on drugs or alcohol?”
“Why can’t they just get a job?”
“How can I trust that they’re going to use the money for something that really helps them?”
These questions, feelings, and concerns are not simply going to evaporate. So what is the right way to respond when we’re inevitably faced with these situations?
Is it right to give? Is there an alternative? Aren’t there tax dollars I’m paying to deal with this? Where is the help?
In part two of this series we will look at what Atlanta has done in the past via laws and initiatives, as well as what is going on in a couple of other places in the country. We’ll also take a look at some helpful reminders when it comes engaging with anyone on the street that is experiencing homelessness. Stay Tuned!