The less fortunate among us

Opinion: Columns

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Terry Grace

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"There, but for the grace of God, go I" is a profound lesson I learned over 31 years of work as a school social worker in Oak Park. This lesson has been strongly reinforced by my time volunteering at the Walk-In Ministry program over the past 16 months.

From that perspective, I was troubled by the headline of the article in the Nov. 30 Wednesday Journal, "Taking a closer look at panhandling." Yes, it was addressing a valid issue — the aggressive panhandler. Most people can relate to the problems that these individuals present to any community. Often these people are disturbed or near criminal. That said, they are also a very small, albeit very visible, minority of the less fortunate in our country, and more specifically, our community.

What I felt after reading the article was that a significant segment of our population was being unintentionally painted with a very broad brush — that the solution of handing out palm cards would be sufficient to salve the conscience of the more fortunate, that giving money to any of the less fortunate would only "encourage" continued acts of aggression and was somehow a "bad" thing, that those of us more fortunate in some way had the right to stand in judgment of our less fortunate brethren, that to ask for help in times of dealing with utter destitution, exhaustion, hunger, and/or exposure is somehow shameful and unacceptable.

None of these things were directly stated in the article, and, indeed, the article had sections where there were expressions of concern or compassion by individuals. Still, I felt there was an underlying attitude of judgment and superiority that seemed to prevail.

My work as a social worker and at the Walk-In Ministry has taught me that a significant segment of our society has suffered through combinations of loss, trauma and general misfortune, resulting in a level of poverty that the more fortunate among us do not understand. Combinations of severe illness, death, accident, job loss, loss of health insurance coverage, divorce or separation, bad loans or investments, crime victimization, or other traumas happen in people's lives that would jeopardize the welfare of almost anyone!

Working with people, I have dealt with different combinations of all of these over my career. Ph.D.s, MBAs, lawyers, and doctors are not immune. Improbable? Perhaps, until it happens to you. While the majority of the less fortunate have less marketable skills, and usually never had a high level of prosperity, it can happen to anyone. It's easy to be aloof or insensitive, until it happens to you or someone close to you. And even then, it's somehow "different" because you know the circumstances.

I'm stating in clear terms: Everyone has a story! You may not be interested. You may not have the time. You may feel superior or aloof and don't want to be bothered, but with the right combination of unfortunate circumstances, it could be you!

I guess what I'm asking for is a sense of understanding and compassion for the less fortunate around us. I'm asking that more people treat the less fortunate with a sense of humanity. If you're nervous when someone asks for help or feel that they are a panhandler without a major need, at least smile, be polite when you decline, and wish them well. I guess it's called practicing the "Golden Rule."

John Barrett's essay [Viewpoints, p. 23] in the same issue is the counterpoint to the front-page article that week. He humanized the person he was dealing with, gave of himself materially and emotionally, and he and the person he helped were both significantly the better for it.

Take a reasonable risk. Treat them as individuals who matter. Humanize your encounter with a less fortunate person.

If done sincerely, with one of the vast majority of less fortunate individuals who are not overly aggressive, you may make the difference in someone's life for that day. It's a small price to pay for a few seconds of your time and maybe a buck if you're confident there is need.

And sure, you can still give them a palm card.

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Scamming Panhandlers  

Posted: February 9th, 2012 11:44 PM

Panhandlers Are Scammers.

Betsy Davis from Oak Park  

Posted: January 18th, 2012 11:47 AM

Thanks Terry - and John Barnett too. Well said.

Betsy Davis from Oak Park  

Posted: January 18th, 2012 11:46 AM

Thanks Terry - beautifully said.


Posted: January 17th, 2012 4:06 PM

Many people in the OPRF area are apt to talk the talk of kindness and community, without actually participating in what that constitutes. Whether one has one dollar or one million dollars, we're all bound by a common human thread, and its high time we all realize it. Exercising personal vigilance does not excuse blanket judgments or assumptions. Bravo, Terry, and thank you for your continued community outreach.

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