Give the gift of human respect; volunteer; donate to organizations; but give no cash.
Every Christmas morning growing up, my family would go to St. Vincent de Paul’s (aka St. Vinny’s) with a handful of Jewish and Muslim families to serve Christmas dinner to the hungry and the homeless. St. Vinny’s, just across from the Gateway Mall, serves on average 1,000 meals per day (and is always in need of volunteers). An overall feeling of gratitude pervades the room on Christmas day—expressions of joy from the youngest children to the loneliest men and women, from both the served and the servers. For me, this early experience helped to humanize those whose lives and trials we often find hard to understand.
Later on, as a newly employed college graduate, I often walked to work with two lunches: one for me, and one for someone on the streets. The scene would usually play out with an exchange of smiles and quick words. I once found a man sleeping on some steps, and left a steaming hot Tupperware meal tucked under his blanket, with a little note, “Enjoy!” This was in Washington, D.C., where income disparity and an illicit drug trade both rage. My rule: Give food and water, but never cash.
The panhandler dilemma
Babs De Lay lives and works in the Dakota Building, near the downtown shelter. She agrees.
“Panhandlers are my neighbors. Every time you give a panhandler money in my neighborhood, you are increasing crime. We see everything. Let’s take Scratchy as an example. We see people give him money. Then we watch him skip over to the dealer when it’s a good donation, and get his fix. Then an hour later we see him up against a building, passed out from heroin. The more pathetic he looks, the more he gets. Sure, some panhandlers are legit, but the pro can’t often be distinguished from the kid who’s run away from home and is trying desperately to get to a safe haven at his aunt’s house in St. George.”
In this giving season it may be especially tempting to give cash when approached by a panhandler with a compelling story. A simple answer, says Camille Winnie, director of Community Services at the Downtown Alliance in Salt Lake City, is: “I don’t carry cash.”
Winnie advocates a simple protocol for interacting with panhandlers:
- Address them respectfully.
- Keep moving.
- Acknowledge their story and, if necessary, their request.
- Direct them towards one of the available resources.
“Panhandlers and homeless people are not necessarily one and the same,” according to the HOST website. “Only a small percentage of homeless people panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless.”
“The truth is, there are resources, shelter, food, clothing and medical care, for people 24/7, 365 days a year,” says Winnie. “Nobody panhandles their way out of homelessness and the chances that you are supporting destructive behaviors is high when you hand out cash.”
Homelessness by the numbers
In Utah, nearly 12% of households live in poverty. At some point, these families may find themselves in an emergency shelter, usually after slipping through the informal support network of a community: family, friends, church, neighbors, coworkers, teachers and community organizations. Though it’s hard to get exact numbers for the homeless population, the yearly Point-in-Time (PIT) count tries to determine how many people are on the street. This count gives a snapshot of homeless individuals in emergency shelters, transitional shelters and on the streets on a single cold January night. Individuals not included are those “doubling up,” floating in and out of temporary living situation.
In 2016, the Point-in-Time count found 2,807 Utahns who self-identified as homeless. About a third suffered from mental illness, another third experienced domestic violence, and about a quarter had substance abuse problems. About an eighth were veterans. These numbers included chronically homeless individuals and families, unaccompanied youths, and youth parents and their children.
The good news with homelessness is that it is mostly episodic. About half of the homeless families and individuals in shelters will find a different living situation within one month; only 4% stay more than six months. It’s clear that getting families and individuals on the road towards a permanent residence with self-sustaining lifestyle, when possible, is the most cost effective and beneficial solution for physical and emotional health. One homeless and unsheltered individual costs the public on average $30,000-$50,000 per year through emergency room visits, hospitals, jails, psychiatric centers and detoxification centers. Children who are homeless are three times as likely to have emotional disturbances than children who live in a stable home according the Utah’s Comprehensive Report on Homelessness for 2016.
Better ways to help
Even with $9.25 million allocated recently by the city and county for the creation of new emergency shelters, the current homeless resource centers remain in need of donations, volunteers and supplies. So if you feel like giving, remember that money donated to homeless services will go a lot further than money handed to a panhandler on the street.
You can also look for one of the 40 red HOST parking meters around downtown Salt Lake City. Meter donations go to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund, which uses 100% of funds for various local homeless resource centers. Find HOST parking meter locations or donate online anytime at www.slchost.org.
Another option is to donate high need items: non-perishable foods and spices, pillows, clothes, shoes, toiletries, hygiene kits, towels, sleeping bags, school supplies, cleaning supplies, etc. Or volunteer at the service providers listed at www.slchost.org.
From inside a warm and well-stocked home, it’s easy to ignore the misfortune of others or, worse, to blame the homeless for their unfortunate situation. Now more than ever is the time to widen our view of humanity; to cultivate kindness. Take an action that helps another.
Weigand Homeless Resource Center, 745 E. 300 South. Day shelter, showers, haircuts, laundry and luggage storage. www.ccsutah.org/programs
St Vincent De Paul Society, 235 S. Rio Grande St. One or two meals served every day. www.dinneratvinnys.org
Crossroads Urban Center, 347 S. 400 East. Emergency food pantry, thrift store. www.crossroadsurbancenter.org
Fourth Street Clinic, 409 W. 400 South – medical, dental, mental and substance abuse clinics. www.fourthstreetclinic.org
Rescue Mission, 463 S. 400 West – faith-based emergency services and addiction recovery. www.rescuesaltlake.org
The Road Home 210 S. Rio Grande St, and 529 W 7300 South – emergency shelter and temporary housing solutions. www.theroadhome.org
Utah Food Bank. Child hunger and food box programs. www.utahfoodbank.org
Veterans Affairs www.saltlakecity.va.gov
Volunteers of America Homeless Outreach
Visit SLCHOST.ORG for more information on how to donate or learn more about local homeless service providers.