A man with a teardrop tattoo reached into my truck. I was at a gas station. It’s weird because there was a disparity between his words and his actions. He called me “sir.” He was asking for a handout, but he was trying to take. I slammed my door quickly. He pulled his hand out just in time to avoid a few broken bones. He leaned in to check his face in my side-view mirror. Maybe he wanted to see why he’d repulsed me so vehemently. Maybe he was just checking to make sure his artificial teardrop was in place. And then he walked away as if nothing untoward had happened.
What was I supposed to do? All I had were twenties. Should I have given him one? Should I have used my money to contribute to the track marks on his arm as opposed to feeding my family? Should I have gotten out and confronted him? Should I have destroyed his face with my fist? His teardrop tattoo screamed “I share needles” so best case scenario, I’d be going to the clinic after a fight. I would have won that physical contest, easily, but what would it have done to me in the long run? I drove away and started thinking about the homeless problem here in Durango, Colorado. It was raining. The fat raindrops exploded on my windshield like turgid little water balloons.
The homeless are rampant in our home town. If you look closely at the picture I’ve attached to this post, you’ll be able to count nine homeless people who are mid-siesta. I took that picture in the park behind the Vitamin Cottage; it’s surrounded by million dollar houses. Bums are everywhere, and they’re allowed to be. The ACLU wrote a letter and sent it to our city. In it, they said that it was an infringement on a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech to disallow panhandling; when the homeless beg, they’re speaking freely through their actions. I’m a left leaning independent like most of us in this town, but even to me, that seems like a stretch. Our constitution is an elastic document, but when it comes to “free speech,” I doubt that its framers were thinking about handouts and cardboard signs. But it’s not like we can ask them, so we have to let our lawyers battle it out semantically in court.
I know you’ve had your own experiences. You’ve probably dealt with that pandering career panhandler who stands at the intersection of 550 North and 160. He dresses from head to toe in Denver Broncos gear to leach a bit of local sympathy. I once gave him five dollars. While my window was down, he told me that I needed to “pray” for him to find a ride south to New Mexico. There were too many liberals here and it was getting cold. He must’ve mistaken me for a conservative sympathizer thanks to my company truck and white skin. I was insulted. I told him that New Mexico was just a five hour walk south, and that if he started immediately, he’d be there in time for dinner. He told me that he had too much luggage back at the hotel and that the walk would be difficult because he had a Siamese cat to worry about. What the fuck? My words deserted me. The light turned green and I drove away regretting my five dollar loss.
And then there’s Walmart. The parking lot is a veritable carnival for the homeless. A sad looking teenage girl with a puppy and a religious cardboard sign almost earned a few alms as I drove by, but I was still shell-shocked from my experience with the cat loving Broncos fan. So I watched her for a bit. Her shift ended, and she walked back to a large motor home attached to a Dodge pick-up that was nicer than the truck from which I performed my stakeout. There was a box of puppies and a stack of signs by the motor home. There was a herd of “homeless” children with two adults, a man and a woman, acting as shepherds. My disgust was palpable. I almost fed into their ruse. Stories like this are ubiquitous. A man and a woman asked my wife for money as she walked out of Subway. She said no, and they countered with “we take sandwiches too.” I took my family to dinner on Main Street a few weeks back, and as we walked out armed with naught but Styrofoam boxes, a herd of homeless men in their twenties asked for our leftovers. My seven year old daughter gave them death stares (she’s rather protective of her left overs), I declined politely saying that the food was for my children, and we walked away with that feeling of despair in our guts.
So what do we do? Labeling panhandling as illegal won’t work because it’d supposedly be a civil rights infraction (despite the fact that our rights are being violated by aggressive panhandling), so do we just live and let live? Let’s face it, there are a few homeless people who actually need our charity, like that benevolent and heavy set woman with special needs who hangs out by the frozen yogurt place. She needs our help, and always gets it from me, because she doesn’t have boot straps with which to pull herself up. But in most cases, “homeless” is a choice in our town. Plenty of people gripe about the situation but solutions seem to be just as scarce as vagrant-free street corners. This problem isn’t going away on its own. There’s an illegal homeless camp that’s hunkered down in the woods just north of the Manna Soup Kitchen. It’s grown to the point wherein the wildlife is coming in attracted to the trash in the makeshift midden heaps. A bear decided to chew on one of the homeless residents a few weeks ago and yet they camp there still. If the visceral fear of being eaten alive isn’t going to dissuade the homeless, our spiteful sneers and exclusionary rhetoric isn’t going to do a damn thing either. We have two options: let it be, or fix it through realism.
Where would option number one lead us? Well, Durango hasn’t really been a nationally known destination spot for that long. So to tell the future, we should look at a few well established destination towns that are comparable. Because if you think about it, the homeless want to be here for the same reason that we do: Durango is fucking awesome. The weather is nice for most of the year and it’s beautiful (and let’s face it, pot is legal). So let’s look at someplace else that’s just as awesome: Key West, Florida. Key West has been a destination spot ever since pirates sailed the seas under their skull and crossbones standards. It’s always warm, there are plenty of tourists, and the island is connected to the mainland by a road. It’s a perfect place to be homeless. The wife and I spent some time there this spring and I got the chance to observe firsthand a highly evolved homeless population. You see, there’s competition between panhandlers just like there is in every other facet of life. They’re constantly trying to outdo their compatriots. At first, they battle through their signs. Their words, written in black sharpie, become more and more desperate touching on all of the bases (I have kids, I’m hungry, anything helps, god bless). And then they try honesty and humor (I need beer, I bet you can’t hit me with a quarter, ninjas killed my family and I need money for Kung Fu lessons). After the signs run their course, they’re abandoned for performance art. In Key West, you rarely see homeless people holding signs. They’ve evolved into bums dressed as Darth Vader playing the banjo. They’ve discovered that more money can be made through novelty. Mark my words. In a year or so, if we don’t find a solution, you’ll see Spiderman standing on Main Street with a bucket for tips instead of that crazy dude with a waste length beard. Once our homeless population evolves like the one in Key West, would it really be that bad? Hell, I think it’d add a bit of flavor to this already flavorful town, but if it’s still something that you think needs to be rectified, there’s only one way to do it: outreach.
You can’t make an undesirable thing illegal and expect it to disappear. We’ve learned that time and time again through prohibition and the war on drugs and gun control and teenage pregnancy. We need to help the homeless. We need to fight fire with water, not more fire. We need an army of volunteers. We need our churches to earn their keep. We need to send out amongst the homeless population people who can help them choose something better, something healthier. These liaisons can wear uniforms and arm themselves with strong stomachs and rehearsed speeches. “Excuse me sir, are you okay? Will you please follow me to the community center where I can feed you and show you a way out of this hole? I’ll walk with you. I’ll be seen with you and I’ll treat you like a human, because I know that we share the same DNA. If you and I were switched at birth, I’d probably end up just where you are. I know you don’t really want to live like this. Share with me your story. I’ll listen. I’ll give you help that goes beyond a few dollars for your next meal, your next fix, your next mistake. I’ll help you to find work, I’ll lead you to a new place, a place that allows you to help others like yourself. Wouldn’t that be incredible? Wouldn’t you love that? Wouldn’t you chose that over this street corner? Take my hand.” Or maybe I should go out and try this approach. Maybe I should practice what I preach. And maybe, instead of sneering at a bum or handing them a few dollars, you should do the same (unless you’re looking forward to a busking Darth Vader), because Durango is our home, and when something is amiss in your home, you fix it.