Monday, December 1, 2008

Questioning commitment

Commitment. It is something I admire. But today I found myself conflicted about some people's commitment to certain things.

The revelation came as I pulled up to the intersection of Moross and I-94 and he wasn't there. "He," is a gentleman I have seen occupying the same spot on the same corner every time I pass by. He is there holding a sign that says simply, "Hungry. Please Help." He is there all day, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. His look is pertually desperate. He is there despite rain or snow, whether it's warm or bitterly cold. That takes commitment, no matter the motives.

As I approached the intersection today however, he was not there. I wondered whether he had gotten the help he needed. I wondered because, as I sat next to him at a red light Saturday I wanted to let down the window and ask whether he has seriously sought help, through an agency or a program dedicated to assisting the homeless or those in need of a meal. I understand that some who need help can get it, while others are sometimes left out in the cold, literally.

According to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, or COTS, on any given day, nearly 10,000 people in Detroit are homeless. The agency says that less than 2,000 beds at its facilities and other emergency shelters exist to serve them. Those programs are near capacity every day, and the problem has shown no signs of letting up, given our region's increasing rate of poverty and lack of access to affordable rental housing and the current foreclosure madness.

I didn't let my window down Saturday, but I didn't avoid eye contact either. He saw me watching him and declining to help. I wondered what he thought, or whether he cared. I am sure he picked the spot because of traffic volume, so he's playing the odds anyway and could probably care less. I was probably just another motorist sitting between him and one who would give him a few bucks.

My personal policy is to give money to agencies that help the homeless and to volunteer at shelters a few times a year. I give money to people on the street infrequently, and working downtown for most of my career, I estimate I've been approached a few thousand times. When I'm in a generous mood or am presented with a compelling case, I'll give a dollar or two (and probably do more than most, at the end of the day). But I try to stick to my guns.

Because I give to agencies that help homeless people move toward independence, why give money to someone who may squander it? I know, when I articulate the point it sounds heartless, but it's a macro position to which I am sticking. I'm helping the greater good ... I have to believe.

I don't know what the exit ramp guy does with the money he gets or how many motorists actually bother to help him, but he must do okay. I can't believe he would be there, day after day after day, if it was just about a few bucks for a meal, right?

If he was simply hungry he could go to a soup kitchen a couple of times a day to eat, there are quite a few on the east side. I self-reflect on that and then wonder if it's his commitment I'm questioning or mine?

I believe I am committed to helping people when I can, and have demonstrated that over the years. However, since I have seen this man so many times and done so little, I'm a bit conflicted.

Have you ever refused to let down your window or dig into your pocket or purse when you could have? I guess the larger question is, should you feel guilty about not doing so?

Our generation faces unprecedented times, between economic turmoil, people losing jobs, homes and hope -- in some cases. We will only get past this if we all do our part. And there's my cathartic moment. I'm going to start by finding out why that guy is so committed to that corner, when I see him again and can pull over.

I say the next time because I eventually did see him today. As I turned the corner and moved from the service drive onto Moross, there he was, heading toward his corner, in the snow. Commitment.


Ursula said...

I think about this often myself. I never give a dime to anyone on the street - can't remember the last time I did. And I try not to feel bad about it because, like you, I know that I am helping in the best way possible. But it doesn't stop me from feeling guilty every time I see the same guy at the entrance to 75 by Cass Tech or am approached by the guy with the trach outside of CVS.

Rodd Monts said...

Appreciate the comment, as always. You're not alone. I've given to the guy with the trach myself. Guilt got me.