I have for years and years struggled in my encounters with panhandlers. And I have continued to live and work in areas that have forced me to struggle with this. During the years I have shifted from gratuitous giving to simple refusal. I have never been happy with any response (as if my happiness was the goal).
I would like to bracket for just a minute the larger structural and societal questions around panhandling and focus on the reality that each encounter is an encounter between two human beings in the midst of life. While I am still not fully satisfied with my approach I am beginning something new. I am beginning to shift my posture towards panhandlers to something more selfish. I am now interested in their stories. I value the unknown (to me) story latent within each of these encounters and I am willing to pay fairly for it. Working in a church located centrally in Winnipeg we come across a fair number of people looking for some sort of aid. I never really believe their ‘story’ as if any story is truly believable by someone in power. So I am trying to evoke another kind of story. A man came in to my office for the second time in about as many weeks. The presenting story is always well scripted and pointed in a way that is all or nothing with respect to what they are asking for. You will either have to accept me or refuse me . . . on my terms. I was sitting and thinking with this man on my couch and did not feel really comfortable enacting my new plan with him. But reluctantly I put forward the proposition that I would like to buy a story from him if he would write one. At first he started telling it to me but I stopped and told him that I would like him to write it down. He actually responded with more than a little enthusiasm. Now the story he completed still reads a little more like a ‘justification’ for why he is asking for money. I tried to be clear that was not what I was looking for. As I went with him to take out some cash to pay him he started talking about how his girlfriend has been telling him to start writing again (he used to write in prison). I told him I was not always sure I can pay the same rate but I would be happy to look at other stories.
While this approach does not offer a solution it does make me hopeful and I think it made him more hopeful. Not a bad thing during this season.
Here is an excerpt from my first story acquisition;
Lately I have been taking good care of Linda and love her very much. Sometimes she thinks that she’s a burden because she’s sick and I need to reassure her that she needs my help and I’m okay with it.