I saw something this morning that really bothers me and I felt the need to talk about it. That’s what blogs are for, right?
Now I try to be a sympathetic person. I have experienced some pretty dark, hard times in my life. This is especially true for the subject of being poor and struggling financially, because less than a year ago I was in a very precarious position there. I was trying to survive on my own, paying rent and car payments – because unfortunately Utah is too big and spread out to survive long without a car – and trying to do it all on the budget of a part-time minimum wage job.
Although I had been applying for months, the surplus of unemployed students in the college town made it incredibly difficult to even get that job in the first place and I never got another offer after even though I kept putting in applications. It reached a point where I was having to forgo groceries and basic amenities like some toiletries just to be able to make ends meet. I lived off leftovers I brought home from the work deli – which mostly consisted of some fried chicken fingers that I refrigerated and then microwaved each day, leaving them dry, tough, and tasteless.
There were days that I did not eat.
So when I see people who are struggling, homeless and broke and begging for money, or laid off from their jobs and using food stamps to get by, I really do feel for them. I know what it’s like, that hopelessness and desperation that drives you to impossible measures.
Which is why what I have been seeing lately has really pissed me off.
Driving to school, I pass through an area of highway overpasses where a lot of homeless people hang out and ask for handouts from the cars that are passing on their way into the city. I have no problem with this, and often times if I have some extra food with me or a bit of loose change, I will stop and help them out. About two weeks ago as I was turning off at my usual spot I saw an older man with a hand-drawn cardboard sign, claiming that he was homeless and that any little bit would help. I was tempted to stop and give him the granola bars I had planned to take to school when I noticed something that stopped me.
The man was smoking. And I don’t mean he had caught fire or something, I mean he was puffing away on a cigarette. I thought at first that maybe someone had given him the cigarette as charity, perhaps to help kill the hunger pangs, but as I waited at the red light, he tossed away the butt of the first and then pulled out an entire pack and lit up a second.
Now your average pack of cigarettes in Utah costs about six or seven dollars. To an average person that might not seem like a ton, but when you don’t even have the money for groceries, seven dollars can be a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter that can feed you for days. Hell, if you’re feeling spendy, that’s enough for a foot-long sandwich at Subway, and even that could easily make two meals. Meaning that this man was out and asking for money, while he was spending what he had on cigarettes.
But it was only one man, perhaps someone who was lazy and just wanted to scam on people’s sense of humanity. There are people like that in the world unfortunately, but they are still the minority. Right?
Well over the last two weeks, I started paying more attention to the people I saw hovering around the intersections with their cardboard signs. The more I watched, the more I saw it happening. Someone begging for help while casually burning away those seven dollars of tobacco and nicotine and god knows what other horrible things are in there. What I thought was a minority had become a majority. In two weeks, I only saw three people not smoking while asking for handouts, and my cynical mind can’t help but wonder if maybe I just happened passed during a break in their chain.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered people who clearly have a serious disorganisation of importance though. A few years back I worked at a gas station convenience store that accepted food stamps. A bit weird, in my opinion, since convenience store food is inevitably twice what it costs at grocery stores, but I figured people had their reasons. Maybe they just needed a gallon of milk and since the town’s grocery store is closed on Sundays we might have been the only option. And things like that did happen every once in a while.
The majority of the food stamps uses I saw, however, were for things that I would not consider essential food items. Soda pops, candy, baked sweets, ice creams… The list was endless. Worst of all, people would use those food stamps on stockpiling soda and candy, and then scraping together all of their cash to purchase alcohol and cigarettes, purely because it’s not legal to buy them with the food stamps. These people were using their money to buy luxuries, and then spending our tax money on feeding themselves.
I don’t know about you, but these choices seem a bit backwards to me. I mean, I’m not a huge believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs since there are some obvious flaws in it, but when I was barely making ends meet, my concerns were on food and health, not my vices like soda pop and shoe shopping.
In summary, I guess all I’m saying is that I have no problem with helping people out so long as I know that they are going to actually do something good with that money I give them. I would be willing to give a starving person my own packed lunch if they needed it. I just don’t like the idea that my charity and compassion is being wasted on sustaining people’s illogical and unhealthy habits.
Seriously, people, they’re called priorities. Get some.