How should students deal with the homelessness crisis?

A panhandler walks on the side of the JFK/UMass off-ramp.

When I moved from Arlington to Boston last year, one thing I wasn’t fully prepared for was the constant, awful reminder of just how many people our system is failing. There are so many people experiencing homelessness in our city, whether long-term or temporarily, and it’s apparent wherever you go. There are countless people trudging up and down the lines of cars stopped at intersections; selling odds and ends on a street corner for a few bucks a pop; and wandering around subway stations, chanting the old dirge of “spare some change?” Most of them hold signs with heartbreaking stories scrawled upon them in sharpie or crayon.

It’s upsetting, and an absolute travesty. The homelessness crisis is only getting worse, and it seems like Boston isn’t doing nearly enough to put the brakes on. You’ve no doubt seen coverage of “Mass and Cass''—the area where Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard meet in Roxbury—where a perpetual tent city has been waxing and waning near a methadone clinic for years now. Some of you might’ve even been there in person; I have, and it’s a sad sight, especially since there is a totally abandoned hotel just across the street.

It’s normal to feel guilty when surrounded by such human despair. Every time I pass by someone begging for change or drive through Mass and Cass, I feel a pang of guilt and sorrow. “I can’t just hand out money to everyone who asks,” I tell myself, “I’m struggling too.” Many students are struggling to make ends meet and may even be near homelessness as well. Even students that are doing okay are likely being supported in large part by their parents, loans and scholarships—this is the category I fall into as well.

So, what can we do? How do we deal with these feelings of guilt? Where does the guilt stop being a legitimate signal from our empathic subconscious that we should take action and start becoming unreasonable?

There is a lot of debate about whether giving money directly to people who are living on the street is more helpful or less helpful than donating money to organizations or volunteering—or even just voting and advocating for political change. Research has gone both ways, so it’s still unclear. But what is clear is that it is a legitimate option; in general, giving money to a person is a more direct form of aid than anything else, and will allow them to buy whatever they need most. Sure, there is a concern that some might choose to buy drugs or alcohol with that money, but it is unfair to assume that of everyone, and even if they do, it might save them from a potentially life-threatening withdrawal. It’s not better than seeking long-term help, but nothing and no one is perfect.

With that said, there is no shame at all in being unable to give money to every person that asks, particularly if you are struggling financially as well. Plus, most people aren’t going to carry cash around anymore—and if you do for emergency purposes, you probably shouldn’t give it all away. Giving money to every person experiencing homelessness you run into is just impractical both financially and time-wise. There are some things you can do though if you are able to afford them.

Something I’m going to start doing is collecting my spare change, not for a payday from the Coinstar machine at Shaws, but as a sort of “homelessness fund.” Once my jar is full, I’ll exchange what I have for paper cash, and hand it out to people who need it. It’s not much, but it is something I can afford. I have been occasionally giving out money at random for a while now, but the randomness is something that really bothers me; it seems arbitrary and even a little cruel. Having a concrete plan, such as “I’ll give out money whenever my jar gets full,” feels more thoughtful.

Another idea is something I got from an old manager—though you may want to use coupons and sales to accomplish this. He likes to pick up big packs of granola bars, or other such snacks, at a grocery store and hand them out to anybody asking for money or help. Now, this can be tricky; lots of people, including those who are asking for help, say that hard cash is the best thing to give, since only the people asking for help truly know what they need at that moment. Maybe they need a toothbrush or some funds to help pay for a cellphone bill. Many unhoused people need a phone to access internet resources, like job boards or crime-tracking apps, to stay in contact with family and friends, and so on. However, food is certainly a top concern for most people experiencing homelessness and is usually appreciated. I have offered sandwiches to people before and have yet to be turned down.

But there’s more to it than just handing out money and food. In my experience, simple human kindness is very much appreciated as well. While I was working in catering delivery, a couple who was camping in an empty lot out back was raided by some people who stole their more valuable possessions and flung their camp supplies all over the alley. I felt awful watching them sort through their stuff and went over to talk with one of them. She told me the story, I listened with an empathetic ear, and later on, offered her the larger half of a hot sandwich that my boss had made for me. She was appreciative that I cared even a little bit, and I was glad to have made a friend for the day.

Another time, more recently, I was grabbing lunch at Harvard Square before heading off to school. A man—I later found out his name was Clifton—was sitting outside selling newspapers with a sign saying that he needed money to eat at the buffet inside. I came out, asked for a paper, and gave him the money for it—but instead of just leaving, I stayed for a while and chatted. He was incredibly gregarious and kind and seemed to love having deep conversations with a number of people who stopped by. I walked away from the conversation feeling that not only did all the people who stopped to talk to him make his day a little brighter, but he made mine a lot brighter too.

Of course, there are a number of other things you can do as well—volunteering at the Greater Boston Food Bank or a local Food Link is always a good option, as well as joining organizations that push for legislation focused on helping unhoused individuals. Here on campus, MASSPIRG has a longstanding campaign to fight hunger and homelessness, which is always looking for new members. You can inquire at info@masspirgstudents.org, or visit Suite 3100 on the third Floor of Campus Center. In particular, they help run the food bank here at UMass Boston, which is also in the Campus Center.

Also, interestingly enough, the man that I met in Harvard Square was selling copies of “Spare Change,” a local newspaper that focuses on issues of homelessness and hunger, covers progressive politics and features creative writing from people experiencing homelessness. It’s non-profit, mostly funded by grants and donations, and they distribute their editions through the efforts of people without housing. These vendors buy each paper for 50 cents and sell it for $2, thereby making a dignified profit from each paper they sell. I highly encourage you to be on the lookout for them and buy an edition now and then. Clifton can usually be found in Harvard Square, outside of the Wholesome Fresh grocery store.

So, in short, do what you can and be confident that your efforts are appreciated. It’s a hard and sad thing that so many people are forced to rely on the charity of others to survive, and it's a tricky issue to navigate. Obviously, the systems in place that allow this to happen must change—yet another reason to vote, vote, vote. But, in the meantime, if everybody gave just a little bit of effort each to their own ability—then the guilt, sadness and shame might give way to pride in the radical empathy of our Boston community.

 

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