Shared from the 12/30/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

COMMENTARY

REAL HELP FOR THE HOMELESS

Organization urges Christians to look beyond giving change to panhandlers and instead to get involved in the lives of the less fortunate

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Photos by Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal church in Midtown, offers a variety of services to the homeless.

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Donna West smiles as she tries on a new pair of glasses with volunteer Tom Kent at Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal church in Midtown.

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Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Robert Seawright tries on new reading glasses at Lord of the Streets. He got a pair and now plans to enjoy his favorite writer.

“I prey on the benevolence of Christians.”

Those words hung in the air as I reflected on what James had said. James, a homeless drug addict, was explaining how he supported his cocaine habit. He was adept at “flying a sign” and had mastered his panhandling skills over the past five years.

He stands at a busy Houston intersection with a sign that reads “God Bless, anything helps.” He makes hundreds of dollars a day practicing his trade. “It’s hard work. If the weather is cold, I don’t wear a jacket. If it’s hot, I sweat a lot. Ihave got to look the part. But it works, and that’s how I get the money for drugs.”

Rosco, another member of the homeless community, explained his thought process in approaching a target. “I like to approach people when they’re leaving a restaurant — not on the way in. People are happy and feel good after their meal, so they’re more likely to give me a couple of bucks for food. If a guy is walking with a woman, he’ll want to give me something to get rid of me. Oh yeah, I can make a few hundred dollars a day just asking.” When I asked him how he spent the money, he said, “When I make $200 bucks, $40 goes for alcohol to get me warmed up. Then I’ll spend $100 on crack, and save the last $40 for food and other stuff.”

These are some of the many accounts shared with me over the past year working at a ministry with a day shelter for the homeless. Listening to these stories has convinced me that the mayor is right about giving money or food to panhandlers — DON’T DO IT! If you do, you are simply being an enabler — not providing help but perpetuating unhealthy behavior. Despite what the panhandler says on their sign or to those who stop — the vast, vast majority of the time, the money goes for alcohol and drugs. One man told me, “I don’t panhandle, I finesse.” Successful panhandlers hone their skills to prey on your emotions and beliefs and con you out of your money to support their habits.

Concerned citizens say, “We can’t let these people starve!” Let me assure you, as a city, we don’t. Houston has more than 100 nonprofits that raise funds and spend more than $100 million per year providing services to the homeless population. Houston is a very generous community. Free breakfasts, lunches and dinners are served every day of the week, every week of the year in Houston. Homeless people will not starve in Houston. In fact, they can even be selective. Many even know the schedules and the menus. For example, after we offered a sack lunch to one homeless person, he announced, “Forget that, I think I’ll go down to Martha’s Kitchen because it’s pork chop day!” For a list of places that offer meals, you can visit the Downtown Public Library (a common hangout for homeless) or the LOTSHouston.org website.

As Christians, we’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan. It is often interpreted as a display of compassion and how to help the less fortunate. Reading the story carefully, it’s not a story about a one-time isolated act of compassion — it’s astory about relationship. The Samaritan did not drop a couple of denarii into a cup and tell his neighbor “go get yourself something to eat.”

The Samaritan bound the man’s wounds, put him on his animal and took the injured man to a shelter — a place that could provide him the help he needed. The Samaritan returned the next day to check on the injured man and pay for his care. The Samaritan also promised to come back in a few days’ time to check again on the man and pay the innkeeper for any additional services. Houstonians must learn the same lesson. Solely giving food or money to a panhandler does not provide the help they need — it enables recreational drug use.

The homeless community is made up of a variety of segments where people’s needs must be addressed differently. There are the drug addicts who need drug rehabilitation treatment; the mentally disabled who need care; sexual offenders who need redemption and chances to prove life reform has taken place; those who are down on their luck or have suffered from domestic violence, brokenness or illiteracy and need aguide.

Help for these people can be found at a variety of organizations around town. They are focused and designed to provide specific help. There are sobriety treatment centers to help those interested in recovery. Open Door Mission and the Salvation Army offer seven-month sobriety treatment programs. These treatment facilities are a caring place to relaunch one’s life.

Multiple services exist for those who are intellectually or developmentally disabled. The Harris Center, formally MHMRA, has amobile crisis intervention team of trained agents to deal with people suffering mental challenges. Harris Health has trained behavioral health professionals and psychiatrists on staff. Churches and health organizations provide counselors to help the broken and neglected.

If we truly wish to effect real change within the homeless population, we need to multiply the number of people who consistently “show up” and establish trust that leads to healthy relationships that will foster real change. It takes time and resources for that trust to happen. Shelters, service providers, social workers and trained volunteers are equipped to increase the likelihood that real-life change happens.

So please, don’t enable a panhandler. Direct that person to a reputable organization that can foster the recovery process and help the homeless get the support they really need. If you feel compelled to give — give money to an established organization of your choice. If you really want to change lives, get training as a volunteer at any of the more than 100 organizations that serve the homeless in Houston. If you are not sure of the organizations, the Coalition for the Homeless (homelesshouston.org) has a list of the agencies that are part of its network, or come join us at Lord of the Streets.

Will Symmes is director of volunteers at Lord of the Streets Houston, an Episcopal church within the Diocese of Texas.

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