It was one of those exquisite spring mornings when all the potential of the season that has been sleeping beneath the surface wakes to stretch its arms up to the warm and clear sunny skies. Everything seems to be sparkling a bit as the sun glints brightly off shining surfaces, a slightly mischievous winking at what the day might hold. It is in the thick of the NCAA tournament and the Plaza, an affluent outdoor shopping area in Kansas City, is a swarming sea of color from both the visiting and home teams. It is already crowded in the late morning, with people strolling, shopping, and dining. There is excitement and anticipation in the air for what is to come on this bright and shiny day that has just begun.
I am there for a few small errands and as I walk past Barnes and Noble a familiar homeless man greets me with a friendly salutation. He is a relatively constant presence there and I see him most times, in the same place, whenever I walk through this part of the Plaza. Always friendly, he never asks for money, as he also does not today. I never give him money, not for any great moral or philosophical reason, but because I rarely have any cash on me. I did have a few dollars with me this morning, and after returning the greeting, I hand him a dollar. As I step past him, I am politely stopped by a security guard: dark trousers, crisp white shirt with a dark tie, a Mountie style hat. He hands me a very small square pamphlet, which I accept without scrutiny. I walk several yards before I open the pamphlet to read it.
It is an informational pamphlet, or at least that is how I believe its creators would describe it. It informed me that while many people believe it to be a kind and generous gesture to give money directly to people who are homeless, this action exacerbates the social issues of homelessness and can even potentially contribute to criminal activities. It provides a list of homeless outreach services to whom money could be safely given that can provide assistance in an appropriate manner to the homeless; hence, best meeting their needs and minimizing the potential harm of inappropriately assisting people directly with money.
As I read the pamphlet, I can feel my cheeks burning.
Brene Brown reminds us that we all know the “warm wash of shame”, this experience ubiquitous as its emergence is one we can neither deny nor control. And I felt that uncontrollable burn in that moment because while the pamphlet was written under the auspices of education, it was in actuality a correction, a prescription to guide future behavior, and a judgment of what had just transpired.
The bright and glinting sunlight was beginning to feel a bit blinding.
I was fuming under my breath when a middle school aged girl stepped towards me. She was wearing the blue plaid uniform of a Catholic school and was trying to direct my attention to the clipboard she was holding. As I waved my hand dismissively and sidestepped her to continue walking, her face initially scrunched into a frown of disappointment which she quickly erased and replaced with a patient nod of polite acknowledgement. She seemed to have been schooled not to expect that all would give her the time and attention she felt entitled to. To be fair, I don’t know what she wanted from me; however, my guess is that she wanted money. I can imagine any number of causes: money for camp, for band, for sports, for charity.
Whatever it was, it must have been legitimate and worthwhile because I received no informational pamphlet regarding the potential societal harm of middle schoolers being sent out from religious institutions (which their parents pay for them to attend) into public areas to ask for money for their private use.
This juxtaposition of legitimate and non-legitimate monetary requests was repeated in several places through the Plaza: a Catholic school youth with a clipboard able to freely stop people with their requests, and homeless people each with a security guard in a crisp uniform standing a few feet away holding informational pamphlets and ready to hand one out to every person that gives money.
The inequity was infuriating, as was the dehumanization. It was like we were being instructed not to feed animals in the zoo for their own well-being. This was not about well-being or what was best for the homeless. This was about control and privilege and paternalism. It was about the insular economics of the housed, the employed and their expendable income which ensures that money only changes hands through very well circumscribed transactions between very specific parties. At that moment, I would estimate 50% or more of the adults in restaurants on the Plaza were drinking some kind of alcoholic beverage with breakfast. (And some of them potentially planning on driving afterwards.) But if there is the possibility that a homeless person can buy a beer to drink in the park on a beautiful sunny spring day, well, that is something we’d better put a stop to and fast.
And what better way than to remind people not to deviate from the prescribed course of when and how to exchange money than with a discreet little slap of shame wrapped up in a small educational pamphlet.
I returned to the Plaza a few weeks later, this time mid-week. The streets are mostly empty and the security guards nowhere to be seen on this idle morning. I pass by Barnes and Noble and see the same familiar homeless man out in front warmly greeting all who pass by. I wish him a good morning and hand him a dollar.
He said, “My children thank you.”
And I said, “You are very welcome.”
No correction necessary.