Barbaric Yawping · Sweet Home

Homeless, Criminal, Neither, Both?

The Haven, Charlottesville's impressive nonprofit homeless facility converted from a former church. Image courtesy of

So this week, this happened in Charlottesville, very very (uncomfortably) close to my house. Apparently, the event was the result of so-called aggressive panhandling. There are a lot of homeless and transient folks in the warm months who camp out along the river. I see them quite often, and they’ve never been anything but nice to me. I have never felt unsafe or threatened around any of them, including at least 2 of the guys whose mugshots I recognized from this particular incident. I have a whole lot of mixed feelings about everything to do with this, and I need to express them. Lucky for you guys, you get to read all about it.

On the one hand…

This follow-up article about the aggressive panhandling problem in our area caught my eye this morning. I was not bothered by the article so much as by the comments left by my fellow citizens. Many of these comments refer to homeless people as though they are not human, like they are some sort of insect infestation we have to rid ourselves of. OH, the problems I have with that. The anger I feel about treating other PEOPLE as though they are animals or inanimate objects. The callous attitude toward the homeless. The frustration I feel about not actually addressing the issue – send them packing to where, exactly? Another city so that they’re someone else’s “problem”? What happens when you visit that city; do you get irate all over again because homeless people – the ones you had kicked out of your town – dare to interrupt your vacation? Where is the compassion for people who genuinely have issues (which is most of these folks)? Some of them have substance abuse problems; some of them have mental health problems; some of them have disabilities (physical and/or mental). Some of them even choose the life just to live outside of what they perceive to be a corrupt system. Above all, though, people are people are people, whether they have a job and a house or not. I can’t help but wonder if I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe simply because I choose to acknowledge any homeless person I encounter AS AN ACTUAL PERSON. I look them in the eyes, say hello, answer their questions. Because every person deserves that. I don’t often carry cash, so I usually cannot give them money when they ask, and none of them have ever threatened me because of that. Sometimes I will offer to buy them food, and they’re usually grateful. And it infuriates me that other people pretend that this population is somehow less than human.

On the other hand…

One of the commenters says that a group of men surrounding you and demanding money is not panhandling; it’s strong-armed robbery. And I have to agree. The victim in the original article had to go to the hospital for minor injuries. Panhandling does NOT involve someone suffering any injuries. There is a HUGE difference between asking someone for money and intimidating, bullying, or robbing someone. This incident makes me afraid to walk in that area alone now, where I never had that fear before. I hate that. I hate not knowing whether to be kind or fearful when I see one of the homeless men and women who frequent our area. I want to be kind, but I also don’t want to be stupid. Last year, when we visited Portland, the sole unpleasant thing about our visit was our encounters with extremely aggressive homeless folks. Most of the people we encountered were perfectly nice, but there was one who yelled nasty things in our faces when we told him (honestly) that we didn’t carry cash. That was not pleasant, but it would have been so much worse if he’d threatened us in any way. That’s not acceptable, no matter how sorry I feel for you.

So I guess I’m not sure where I land on this. I am very opposed to treating other human beings like animals or trash or like they don’t even exist, and I certainly don’t want to assume that homeless = criminal, because I know that’s not true. But I also don’t want to be afraid to walk in my own neighborhood by myself, and I don’t want to be accosted or mugged. Honestly, because I am somehow this eternal optimist, I want to believe that it’s enough to just treat people like they are your fellow human beings, because they are and that’s what’s right and decent to do. I can’t imagine not acknowledging another person I see while I’m walking by. Apparently, however, I would be wise to buy some pepper spray for my purse, just in case.


One thought on “Homeless, Criminal, Neither, Both?

  1. I started to read some of the comments on the news articles and had to stop because they were making me feel ill. I’m not trying to bury my head in the sand, but I also don’t want to read the angry rantings of people who appear to lack compassion.

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