Monday, June 17, 2013

The Panhandler on Siegen Lane: The Student Loan Crisis and Reflections on Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day
I took the Siegen Lane exit off of Interstate 10 a few days ago and saw a panhandler standing at the end of the exit ramp. He was holding a sign that read: "Hungry, Need Food, Please Help."

He was young, clean, and apparently well fed. As I watched from my car, I saw him take a long, luxuriant drag from his cigarette.

I couldn't help but smile and think of my late mother. My mother hated panhandlers, and she especially hated panhandlers who smoke.

There are plenty of jobs available, she would say. That Siegen Lane panhandler could be working at McDonald's instead of standing on the street begging for money. And a smoking panhandler, she would point out, obviously has money for cigarettes--money he should be spending on food.

My mother was especially infuriated by panhandlers who promised to work for food. She often threatened to call their bluff by offering them a job raking leaves or some other menial chore. She didn't think anyone would accept her offer.

No--in my Mom's view--actually working is anathema to a panhandler. Panhandlers would rather loaf around on a street corner waiting for a handout than rake leaves for a meal.

I disagree with my mother. In my opinion, anyone who stands on street corner on a hot Louisiana day is working--there's nothing easy about that.

Moreover, I discovered through experience that most panhandlers will thank me graciously if I give them a couple of bucks, and many said "God bless you." In my opinion, two bucks for a sincere "God bless you" is a fair transaction.

How about those smoking panhandlers? Should we boycott them?

Dorothy Day would say no. I recall reading that Dorothy once gave a homeless woman an expensive ring that had been donated to the Catholic Worker, and she was criticized for it. People said the homeless woman would pawn the ring and spend the money on drink--that it would have been better for Dorothy to have sold the ring and used the proceeds to pay the woman's rent.

The woman can sell the ring herself, Dorothy replied, and use the money however she likes. She might pay the rent or she might decide to spend the money on a Caribbean vacation! That would be her choice.

If we insist on categorizing the needy into the deserving and the undeserving, we will wind up helping no one. Congress doesn't want to help overstressed student-loan debtors because some of them borrowed too much money to attend college and some made poor choices in choosing their majors--art history instead of business, for example.

I say, so what? Millions of former college students are burdened by crushing student loans they will never pay back. Why not provide them some assistance instead of stewing over whether or not they deserve help?

I confess, I don't always follow my own advice. I don't help every panhandler who approaches me. I definitely don't like being accosted at night by a panhandler in the Walgreen's parking lot. But that guy standing on a hot street corner waiting for a motorist to roll down the car window and give him fifty cents--I say let's help him out a bit.

And so--when I saw that clean, young, and apparently well fed panhandler standing at the roadside on Siegen Lane, I gave him two dollars.

I admit, however, that my mother's spirit came welling up within me as I handed over the money. "Those cigarettes,"I chided, "will kill you."

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