An Incoherent Post About Homeless People

Sorry to start the week with a depressing post, but I heard this storyon WBHM this morning and really don’t know how to react:

Homeless people camped beneath Birmingham’s overpasses and railways were warned to move out before the city evicts them this week.

Don Lupo, director of the Mayor’s Office of Citizens Assistance, said the city is responding to requests from railroad officials and the Alabama Department of Transportation.

Lupo said highway and railroad officials want the people removed because they are trespassing on private property.

Violence, petty thefts and unsanitary conditions in the camps also are factors in the decision to remove them, Lupo said.

Many of the people living on the property are not accused of offenses that warrant arrest, Lupo said.

Peter and Greer McCoy, who live in an elaborate hut under Interstate 65, and neighbor Frank Watts, who lives in a meager hut across the field, say the police and railroad security used to check on them to make sure they were all right. The relationship has changed, Watts said.

My first thought was to suggest that when it’s finished, the evicted bums could go live under the elevated 280.

We just spent a fantastic weekend in Chattanooga and my second thought when I head this story was to post something about how Chattanooga is such a great place that it even has better bums than does B’ham. While there, one panhandler approached us and as she began talking I readied myself to hear one of the usual B’ham routines: Either “I’ve got a job interview to get to, but my car broke down, can you give me some money for the part to fix it?” or “My kid needs this medicine, can you give me enough to buy it?” Instead, she said she was a street poet, and that if I gave her some money for breakfast, she’d recite some verse.

Naturally, I said no thanks and kept walking.

Recalling that story led me to my final state of confusion.

It really annoys me when I’m out for a nice evening and some hobo stops me to ask for money. One, they always stink. Two, I know damn well whatever sob story they’re telling me is a lie. Three, I worked for my money, let them work for theirs.

So I never give them any money. I know all the experts say that you ought not give out money. It enables, and all that. But I’m withholding because I want to withhold, not because I’d really like to help, but I know money would be counter-productive.

In short, when I read this story, my instinct was to sympathize with the property owners. I would want the bums off my property, too. They’re a useless annoyance.

But whenever I turn down a request for money, I am immediately filled with regret. Maybe the guy really was going to use the money for a legitimate purpose. Sure they smell bad and look like death warmed over, but life isn’t pleasant, and it’s terribly arrogant of me to get mad at someone for reminding me of that. And of course, there’s the fear that I, a professing Catholic, just told Jesus to piss off:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

For those who said no to the bums? Eternal damnation. Note, according to this text anyway, blessed or damned does not depend on how vigorously the individual opposed civil rights for homosexuals, or what theory of the atonement was accepted, or on belief in papal infallibility. Nope, the distinction isn’t doctrine but practice. Those who feed the hungry are blessed while those who don’t are cursed.

And the “bums” are, according to the text, more than bums. They’re more than people, even. They’re God himself.

So what ought I do? Maybe I ought to start carrying cash and being more liberal with it. The text doesn’t leave much room for excuses. Maybe, because the point is helping the hungry, and giving money directly to them really is not a good way to help, I ought to content myself with donations to local charities. Certainly, though, my attitude ought to change.

And what about situations like the bums under the bridges? That’s the hard part. These property owners are perfectly justified in wanting the homeless off their property, my religious views notwithstanding. The camps are unseemly and, among other problems, the fires they use for warmth in winter are a real hazard. But what to do with them? These are people, most of whom have serious problems and little ability to help themselves. I don’t think anyone wants to just ignore them and leave them to their fate.

I don’t know about the big picture, but one encouraging development is the new location of the Jimmie Hale Mission Center. Here’s how Mixed Media described it:

Also in the news today, we just heard that the Jimmie Hale Mission’s long-awaited move to its new, larger quarters in the old Thomas School building is complete. . . . Tony Cooper, the Mission’s executive director, said the Shepura Men’s Center will hold an open house and dedication ceremony April 22 from 2-3:30 p.m.

Jimmie Hale announced in 2005 that it would move by summer 2006 in order to have more space. The move means the Mission will be located further away from downtown services and job opportunities, but it also allows the Mission to expand its own services. And, hey, downtown denizens will probably be happy that some of the area’s homeless are now out of sight and out of mind. (We’ll still have to see how the City of Birmingham’s 10-year-plan to end chronic homelessness works in action.)

I don’t have any faith in long term wars on concepts, whether the concept be drugs, or terror or homelessness. I do have a lot of faith in concrete acts by real folks. This actions by the mission seems like a win for everyone. The building they renovated looked to me like it was ready to collapse; now it looks brand new. So that’s one less dilapidated, dangerous, abandoned building in B’ham. It’s also in an industrial area, rather than downtown. So that’s putting potential nuisances with other potential nuisances. That’s a win for the residantial and shopping areas. And the mission now has all kinds of space to help the homeless people who depend on them.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time writing this, and probably haven’t said anything. But there it is, for whatever it’s worth.

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23 Comments on “An Incoherent Post About Homeless People”

  1. Frank Says:

    You have described the dilemma we all face when approached for a handout. My solution, for what it is worth, is to give the person the location of the homeless shelter or a soup kitchen — and to give generously to those types of organizations.

  2. Joe Says:

    Here in Bessemer it’s not the “true” homeless so much as it is the ones (usually female) who “just pulled off the interstate to get gas and I’m driving from Tuscaloosa and just realized I left my debit card at home and mother is at UAB and I need to get there for her (insert procedure here)” type of situation. I never give them money either (except sometimes…could Jesus be disguised as a female and driving a beat up car?) but I have the same almost guilty feelings that you do. It just makes me less likely to go to Walmart (if I could be less likely to go) because they are usually in the parking lot on Academy Drive.

  3. Himself Says:

    It’s never been an easy situation to handle – if you go through Penn Station or the Port Authority bus terminal as often as I have, it almost becomes routine part of the day. Being asked for money is annoying and it does make you uncomfortable but think of how degrading it is to have to beg.

    Each person who asks is an individual and you have to make an individual judgment. If their story is true, and I don’t help, shame on me. If their story is a lie, and I give, shame on them.

  4. kc Says:

    Wheeler …there was a guy in WPB fl that started a mission years ago….got some support from some local lawyers…..just saw them featured in a recent Runners World article for their program that gets it’s clients in marathon training…here’s the link for what it is worth:

    I think we all get conflicted on this issue

  5. Baudrillard Says:

    I have found it useful, especially when working in downtown Bham (the bums in Montg. aren’t near as aggressive or numerous) to declien to give money, but offer to buy them a sandwhich. More often than not, they would decline the sandwhich, a good indication that they’re looking for crack money. Sometimes, however, a bum would take me up on the sandwich, and we would go eat at a sandwich shop. Bums can be very interesting people with colorful pasts. Always stay in a public place when interacting with a bum, though.

  6. Dan Says:

    Wheeler, if you’re interested, we can go walk around and find a vagrant to do Baudrillard’s idea. We can go where they hang out and offer to buy a couple people a sandwiche. It sounds interesting to me, and you can feel good for feeding Jesus or whatever it is your crazy death cult says :).

    Together, we probably wouldn’t be mugged or anything.

  7. Susan Says:

    “It just makes me less likely to go to Walmart (if I could be less likely to go) because they are usually in the parking lot on Academy Drive.”

    People (err, female forms of Jesus driving beat up cars) panhandle in the Bessemer WalMart parking lot? Interesting. I thought that area as becoming gentrified, what with the Visionland-related development and all. Is that true?

  8. Joe Says:

    yes it’s true, it’s true. They stay close to the Radio/Shack, Burger King end of the parking lot, probably so WalMart security (there’s another laugh) won’t chase them away. My partner interacted with one Saturday, had a child with her. I can’t remember if he said he gave money, but he followed them, they met up with a guy somewhere (I forget the details) and went to the 4th Ave Supermarket, where the guy made a phone call (I guess from a pay phone). Then my partner came home, so I don’t know what happened after that. I could guess, though.

  9. Susan Says:

    Joe: How do you feel about the impending Target/movie theater/whatever else at 459 and Eastern Valley Road? That area is certainly undergoing a…shift (roadside farmer’s stands to high-end strip malls doesn’t quite warrant the term ‘progress’ to me).

  10. Loretta Nall Says:

    I am Atheist but always dig in my pockets for spare change and dollar bills when I encounter someone who looks like they could use it. Do unto others and all that jazz….I have never been homeless but my life has not always been easy. I can’t really imagine what it is like to live under a bridge. I blogged about this article yesterday. My thoughts are markedly different than Wheelers on this one.

  11. wheeler Says:


    i dunno. i just read yours, and i don’t think we’re that far apart.

    i will, though, note that we both look like we’re betraying our principles. I – the professing christian – sympathize with the property owners while you – the libertarian – want the landowners to provide rent free accomodations.

  12. Danny Says:

    A thoughtful post, Wheeler, and I appreciate you sharing it.

    I’m not surprised that the Scripture you quote gives you pause. It’s tough enough that I am surprised that it does not give more people pause.

    When I am approached by a panhandler, I am reluctant to give money but I am more willing to meet the expressed need. If someone says they are hungry, I offer to buy them a meal. Like Baudrillard says, if they won’t take you up on that, then you know they have something else on their mind. If someone says they want bus or cab fare, then I do what I can to get them where they are going… for example, putting them in the cab and paying the driver myself.

    All that said, if I am going to err, I would rather err on the side of generosity. Occasionally I do give money. In a sense, I feel like the panhandler and I are held accountable in our own ways. I feel I am accountable for how I reacted to an expression of need, and the panhandler is accountable for how he or she uses the money. As I said, if I am wrong, I prefer to be wrong on the side of generosity. (Good people of faith have landed elsewhere on this issue.)

    I also feel it’s important for me, like Frank says, to support agencies that are addressing real issues faced by people of poverty.

    Wheeler, I really appreciate this post, because a lot of people choose not to wrestle with how their faith impacts their lives, and I suspect that both their faith and their lives are poorer for it.

  13. Willie Says:

    I was in Pensacola last week, no not buying a lottery ticket, but going to the cheapest airport on the gulf coast. Bum on the corner with a sign saying,”I’m not going to lie, I need a beer badly”. I gave him a buck.

  14. Loretta Nall Says:

    Well, I am a little ‘l’ libertarian and not so hard core as some of my counterparts. And I dont think the rail and transportation depts should be solely responsible for providing an alternative, but since they are the ones complaining about it maybe they could offer to be part of a long term solution.

    Homelessness has never been one of the issues that I have focused my energies on and I do not have the answers to this very complex problem….but the thought of what it must be like to have nowhere to go and lay your head down at night and to have to literally beg strangers for every crumb you get makes me want to stand and defend some of the most vulnberable among us. It could have eaisly been me had circumstances been different. It could have been any of us.

  15. Loretta Nall Says:


    I saw a bum with the same sign on an exit in El Paso some years ago. He got money for being honest.

  16. Joe Says:

    Susan,I think interstate interchange in suburb equals that type of development and nothing can be done to prevent it. I would not buy a home out there close to that interchange because of all the traffic that is going to be created. Hey, maybe an elevated highway over Eastern Valley Road…just kidding. But I welcome Target. We are still wondering what is going to be at the corner of Lakeshore and Highway 150…know its retail but no particulars. Publix…..plleeeaaaasssseeee. Are you listening?

  17. Susan Says:

    haha…I love Publix. I think that Target will be closer to me than the one on 280, and I welcome an alternative to Costco for non-grocery items, but it’s sad seeing a formerly rural area ‘developed’ in the name of moving further and further out. It’s not as if the metro area’s population is growing; it’s only abandoning pre-existing neighborhoods for what is newer and (supposedly) better.

    Wheeler, sorry for hijacking your salvation-anxiety-regarding-treatment-of-the-homeless post.

  18. Greenshirt Says:

    I was approached in my front yard a year or so ago with a request of such urgency, I broke a rule I had set up for myself, and gave the woman some money. She seemed so upset and her story so invested with emotion, it seemed like the thing to do. I had never seen her before and was pretty sure she was a stranger to the area.
    A week or so later, I was outside again and there she was. I was surprised when she asked me again, thinking she might remember me. This time I did not give.
    This experience more or less solidfied my feeling that (somewhat) regular donations to established charity are the best course. It is addressing the problem in an systemic rather than chaotic way, for better or for worse.

  19. […] Monday, May 7, 2007 Evicted in Birmingham Dan on 2007-05-07 @ 9:49 pm The Alablawg writes An Incoherent Post About Homeless People. Filed under Local/B’ham + metro email author :: no comments(1625) These icons link to […]

  20. wayne Says:

    McDonalds has these little cards they give you when you have to wait in the drive-thru for a burger, fries and coke. You can buy them fairly cheap. I used to keep some of those on me for when people asked me for cash to eat. I gave a guy one outside City Stages once and figured he’d toss it but later saw him in line at McDonalds using the card. I was very glad I had not just told him to beat it.

  21. Del Says:

    FWIW it’s worth Wheeler, I’m glad you wrote this post because it made me laugh a lot. Esp. “I’m withholding because I want to withhold.”

    Here in Mobile, where some of the downtown restaurants have set up outdoor seating, you get panhandled while sitting at your table enjoying a meal. Talk about yer guilt trips. I second (or third or fourth) the “hundreds for the social service organizations, but not one cent for beggars” idea, except for the fact that the increase in social services downtown has increased the number of homeless hanging around. You keep putting out peanuts, you’re going to get squirrels. (And don’t even ask about the “reading chairs” at the downtown library.) I don’t see why we can’t build a big, comfortable but not luxurious place for the hard-core homeless ‘way out in the country. My husband says I want to bring back the poor farms. I do understand why the vagrancy laws were struck down. Interesting that that happened at the same time that downtowns were being deserted for the suburbs.

    Don’t know if they do it any more, but on Sundays vans would come in from the big churches out in the western burbs, bearing blankets and sandwiches for the downtown homeless. The church youth hand out the goodies then hop back in the van and head west, comfortable in the knowledge that they have done did to the least of the brethren.

    Have you noticed that for some years now giving to street people has been movie shorthand to indicate “goodness” in a character? At the beginning of the film, the protag or love interest slips a few coins to the colorful bag lady on the sidewalk. Sometimes the villain is shown refusing to do the same. We expect the movies to simplify complex situations, but we are entitled to more from our legal and public welfare systems.

  22. wayne Says:

    “Are there no prisons? Are there no poorhouses” asked Scrooge.

    “Plenty, Sir. But some would rather die than go there.”

    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge,”they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    — Charles Dickens —

  23. ALmod Says:

    Wayne, I prefer Johnathan Swift’s proposal.

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