Dear Pen Pals,
Q: I have mixed feelings about giving cash to panhandlers. Does it help or hurt? Isn't it better to give them things they might need, such as food or clothing? What about gift cards? If I give money, won't they just spend it on drugs or alcohol? I don't want to support that.
We asked Kris Cronk, a member of Megaphone’s Speakers Bureau team, to answer this question. Cronk has lived experience with homelessness, panhandling and drug use.
Answer: Don’t think of it as giving cash, think of it as giving choices to someone who feels they have no choices left. That can be helpful.
And don’t get me wrong. Food and clothing are a great help. But being able to choose what I eat or what I wear gives back the sense of control that I have given away.
Living on the street, your choices fade away. Gift cards are a great way to give even a small level of control back into my life as a panhandler. Even just the feeling of having a card in my pocket that allows me to choose my coffee that morning, or going to a dollar store with a card where I get to choose the food, clothing and hygiene products that I want, or heaven forbid I take the cards people give me to the corner and sell them for 50 cents on the dollar.
It’s still a choice.
On the occasions I did that, not long afterwards I would kick myself for making the wrong choice. I shouldn’t have done that. I quickly learned that selling the cards wasn’t the right thing to do and I never did it again. But it was a lesson I needed to learn on my own about choice.
When you live on the street long enough, eventually you stop believing in choices. Where you eat, sleep and even socialize is decided for you. About the only choice I felt I had left, as a panhandling drug user, was where to pick up. That meant I needed cash. How much cash depended upon where I picked up.
I had two choices: the $10 or the $20 supply.
The difference being the $10 supply is going to come from a few suppliers that don’t really know what it is they are selling you. It could be cut with fentynal, pig tranquilizer, or any other number of things.
Also, $10 just gets enough for one person, so I’ll be using alone, and it’s not enough to be able to test it. So you go home, or to an alley, and you roll the dice, with no one to help if an overdose occurs.
Now, if I can last long enough to see the $20 supplier, which can be hard, depending on how sick I feel that morning, I phone that supplier, then go to his house to pick up. I feel I can get a safe supply. There is enough to test. It always comes back clean.
There is enough so I can hook up with a friend to share with and be with if something goes wrong and an ambulance needs to be called.
I have to tell you, 80 per cent of the time I saw the $10 supplier. It is hard to panhandle $20 and usually I could only make it to $15 before breaking down and thinking, “If I get the $10 supply now, I will still have $5 towards my next pick-up…”
But I would end up repeating this cycle over and over again, risking my life, waiting until the day when all of the supply is clean.
Bottom line? I am going to pick up my drug of choice whether you give me money or not. But if you are concerned for my health as a panhandler, I would encourage you to help by getting me to where I can get the safest possible supply.
Someone once told me that when I stop viewing the word in terms of what I like or don’t like, and start to see it for what it truly is, that I would be inviting peace in my life.
Keep those letters coming.
Do you have a question about drug use, addiction, mental health, relationships, sexuality or other life issues?
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Building on the open dialogue around drug use and addiction fostered by Megaphone’s new Speakers Bureau program, we’re launching a monthly advice column that aims to encourage respectful discussion.
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The opinions expressed in Pen Pals are the sole opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Megaphone or Street Corner Media Foundation. Megaphone is committed to providing a forum for open dialogue and respectful exchange of ideas.