Monday, December 19, 2011

"Please, Missus...I'm 'ungry"

Had something of a Port Au Prince  flashback yesterday, when a woman came up to me, panhandling in the local grocery store parking lot.  Asked for a couple of bucks for dinner.

Years ago, I worked in a few different homeless shelters, so I got pretty good at spotting the different types of panhandlers.  Women tend to be of two types--either mentally ill and/or druggies or so far down on their luck that everything looks up.

She looked too good to be a meth head or a crack addict, so I was curious about her.  And to be honest, it was cold enough that I might have given her a couple of dollars even if she had told me she was going to go find her dealer.  Whatever gets her through the night, you know?

I asked her about her situation. She told me her husband was out of work and she had a couple kids.  She wanted a few dollars to make it to the end of the week.  She said they'd applied for food stamps, but they hadn't been approved yet. Possible, since I don't know the availability of emergency food stamps at the moment.

I told her I didn't have much cash left.  She was alone, and I hate to say it, being approached like that makes me suspicious.  On the other hand, she approached me in the middle of the parking lot, in daylight, so I could see she didn't have any nefarious companions.  If it had been a couple, I would have been more wary, I think.

I asked her if she wanted the extra gallon of milk I had just bought and her face lit up.  So, she really was asking for food rather than drug money.  I fished a couple of dollar bills out of my pocket to go with it and drove away wondering how long it would be before one of our good citizens complained to the manager of the store and the local cops asked her to move on.

As I drove away, I saw her take the gallon of milk back to her car, where a girl about the same age as my daughter sat, looking cold.

The last time I was approached by a beggar like this was in Port Au Prince.  It was very common for both women and children to come up to anyone white,  "Scuse me, missus. " they'd say, "I'm 'ungry." This was, more often than not, the only English they had.  It was not safe to give them anything. There were so many, one risked being mobbed.  I'd hold up open hands and say, "No, I got nothing."

The same sort of thing is common in many cities in the world, that children and women are seen begging.  But it is unusual in the States.  At least in my lifetime.  This woman was a strange sort to be begging, here. Clean, neatly dressed in jeans.  Her coat a few winters old.  No makeup, in her thirties.

As I said, normally, women panhandlers are mentally ill or have drug habits. You might see buskers in some places, but they're generally teens...runaways without any skills to get work.  Prostitutes, of course, but again, teens. Women tend to have different reasons than men for becoming homeless and they will put up with far worse conditions to remain in a "home"`than men will.  They will stay in hideously abusive situations to mantain a roof over their heads and their children's heads.

And normally, a woman will generally turn first to family and friends.  Go shopping in mom's cupboard, maybe.  Next choice would be Welfare, food pantry or maybe church.  They're all pretty tapped out this years.

More than likely, she's subsisting on Snickers. She's probably got the kids eating at school, so they at least, get two meals a day during the week.    Naturally, Sunday afternoon would suck for everyone. No community dinners that I know of anywhere around here.  Do church services still do coffee and donuts?

I was visiting my friend in Virginia not too long ago, when her neighbor who's down on her luck came by, asking to borrow a few dollars to buy a sack of groceries.  My friend doesn't keep cash in the house and was also a little nonplussed.  She gave the woman a bag of groceries out of her own cupboards instead.

My mom and I never did welfare.  I don't think she knew we could have qualified.  I did have Federal lunches and I ate at my friends houses a lot.  The Christmas after my dad left (I was 16) my mom gave us a choice.  We could have presents, or we could have Christmas dinner.  We decided we'd rather have Christmas dinner and my brother found a tree somewhere for five dollars.  It was like some movie of the week thing.  My family never exchanged Christmas presents much after that.  We always just tried to help out when anyone needed it.  My mom liked to throw big holiday meals, although I'm not so inclined.

Wondering if there's going to be a lot more families at the free church meals this year, rather than just the old people and homeless.

Wondering if walking through any American city is going to become like walking through Port Au Prince, everywhere you look, a woman or a child saying, "Ma'am, can you spare something?"

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