April 2, 2002

The Homeless are People Too

In the last issue of THE CHICAGO MAROON, there appeared a rather trite condemnation of panhandling by John Lovejoy. His attitude is typical of that of the elitist, egotistical, spoiled 'poopheads' who are overrunning this fine campus. These people will gladly help their housemates insert live cockroaches into their own anal cavities to please Scav Hunt judges, but swear, rant, and rave when the realities of life momentarily intrude upon their bubble in the form of a poor person in need of a dollar or two. Mr. Lovejoy begins by complaining about James McCaugh (though he didn't bother to learn the man's name before writing about him), who frequents the Red Line stop on 55th street. Employing the critical thinking skills nurtured, no doubt, by his humanities sequence, Mr. Lovejoy reaches the startling conclusion that Mr. McCaugh's story about feeding his daughters may be less than accurate.

He assumes that the only students who respond to Mr. McCaugh's request for assistance are those who "swallow his parade of lies." I can't speak for my fellow humanitarians, but every time I handed him a dollar or two I was pretty sure he wasn't being wholly honest with me. There is one part of the story that is almost certainly true, and this is the only part that really matters. Mr. Lovejoy quotes Mr. McCaugh as saying "I just need some help." I don't care why he needs help, and I don't care what he wants the money for. He wants a dollar, I have a dollar to spare, that's the end of the story.

Not for Mr. Lovejoy, though. His article is devoted to explaining why Mr. McCaugh and others in similar circumstances are not deserving of help. His first argument is that the money will be used for "booze, drugs, or both." To make such an unsubstantiated accusation is rude and irresponsible at best. I've had many conversations with Mr. McCaugh, and he has never appeared to be under the influence of anything. I doubt that Mr. Lovejoy would make a similar accusation about, for example, Don Randel without providing any justification for it and without giving Mr. Randel a chance to respond to the accusation. Apparently, though, a poor, black man is not deserving of the same respect. I have given money to people who were visibly drunk in the past, though, and I don't regret that any more than I regret giving money to Mr. McCaugh. I don't care if they spend the money on alcohol, because that's probably where I would have spent it anyway. But perhaps the poor don't deserve to enjoy a drink the way a University of Chicago student does because they don't work for it, right? I imagine panhandler is a considerably more difficult profession than student, and probably more so than the jobs most of us will hold when we graduate. Given the choice between working or walking along 55th Street on a freezing cold Chicago night "pestering" spoiled people like Mr. Lovejoy, I doubt even the laziest drunk would prefer the latter. Many panhandlers would probably like to "do work to support themselves." It is not so much the allure of enduring the jeers and curses of the John Lovejoys of the world as it is addiction, a jail record, or a tight labor market that is keeping them on the streets.

But isn't it dishonest to claim that the money is for "bus fare" or "four starving daughters" when it may instead be used on drugs, alcohol, or (gasp!) rent? Perhaps, but it's a crime of which many students here are guilty. I don't know if Mr. Lovejoy is among them, but there are plenty of students at this school who don't do any more work, and probably a good deal less, for their money than Mr. McCaugh does. Their parents provide them with money and probably don't intend for it to be spent on alcohol. The only other thing approaching an argument in Mr. Lovejoy's article is his whining about how annoying panhandlers are. I was more annoyed by this article than I've ever been by a panhandler, but I suppose I was free to stop reading it. Anyway, there's plenty of annoying shit that happens on and around this campus that doesn't get the sort of response that panhandling does. Participants in Scav Hunt, for example, disrupt campus life much more substantially than a few panhandlers. They skip work and class, steal or destroy things, flood e-mail in-boxes with requests for toilet paper tubes and dildos, and walk through dormitory halls with megaphones. So, yeah, I agree with Mr. Lovejoy that students on this campus can take some steps to improve the quality of life, but I don't agree that the solution is to become even more self-absorbed pricks than we already are. Instead, we can respond to requests made by fellow human beings without being judgmental and elitist.

When a fellow student needs a favor, like help with homework, I'm glad to be of assistance. When a fellow human being, who doesn't happen to be a student, needs a favor, like a dollar or two, I'm glad to be of assistance. Once I'm finished dealing with every poophead yammering on a cell phone, wearing a visor upside down and backwards, bragging about how much money he's going to make at Goldman Sachs, and rushing to another house event, maybe I'll concern myself with people trying to get a burger, a bus ticket, or forty.