This last Sunday evening I made a quick trip to our local, suburban grocery store. As I left the nearly empty parking lot and waited at the red light to turn on to Arapahoe Road, a young/old woman stood to my left holding a worn cardboard sign that read, “Single mom need help.”
I quickly went through the usual mental gymnastics: are you really a single mom? If I give you a dollar, will it just go up in smoke-or something worse? Or really help the kids? That she was a woman cinched it for me; I don’t give money to men standing at stop lights.
I pushed the down button on the passenger window and said, “Hey, I have something for you.” I hurriedly pulled a dollar from my wallet; the light could change any time. She acted like she hadn’t heard me; she could hardly see my car, let alone me, with the sun blasting into her eyes just above the mountains to the west. I tried again, louder,”Ma’am, here’s a dollar.”
She heard me this time and took off the dark glasses that were doing a poor job of protecting her from the glare. “Sorry,” she said, coming closer, “I couldn’t see you.”
She reached into the car; I handed her the bill. She thanked me and backed away. The light changed. And I pulled onto Arapahoe.
What is our city, and country, coming to?
I grew up in Denver. The only memory I have as a youth of panhandlers is one I would like to forget. In high school, some friends and I went down to skid row, which, believe it or not, was where Larimer Square is now. We brought some pliers, some dimes, and some matches. And had a “great” time watching the wretches on the sidewalk burn themselves as they scrambled to pick up the coins that we pitched out the windows.
But aside from that shameful experience, I have no recollection of begging in this town back then. But now it is common place to see one, two, or even three ragged souls at intersections holding up limp cardboard signs throughout the city. Even in quite suburban areas on a quiet Sunday evening.
Do I know what to do about it? No.
But I do have some thoughts on causes.
First, broken families spawn broken people. In a whole range of ways, virtually every study agrees that divorce or bearing children out of wedlock negatively impacts everyone involved. Divorced parents and single mothers are more likely to be in poverty. Which, of course, spills down to children.
But the problems kids face go beyond poverty. Children in these scenarios are more likely to do poorly in school, be involved in crime, act out sexually, and abuse drugs.
Will a stable marriage solve all these problems? And mean that we see fewer panhandlers on Denver streets? Almost certainly not. But how could it hurt to set it as a goal?
Second, undiagnosed mental illness often plays a role in panhandling and homelessness. And this is something I am qualified to speak about from personal experience. I am bipolar. In my early 20’s I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks and put on medication. But, like many in my situation, when I was released, I quit taking the medication. “I don’t need that stuff.”
And for the next thirty years I was on a roller coaster. Sometimes maniacally high. But much more frequently in the grip of the black dog of depression. True, I was never homeless; but I was suicidal many times. But, I was blessed to be surrounded by a supportive family that was more than enough reason to keep living. Now I see a psychiatrist quarterly and take daily medication. But take it from me, mental illness is debilitating.
I can see how someone can wind up on a street corner holding up a “Single mom need help” sign. But what to do about it is another matter.