When I first started going downtown to take pictures, I would brace myself for "the ask". I tried to avoid anyone who looked like they might ask me for money.
As I visited the same areas, I started to see the same people over and over. Instead of strangers, every individual started to look like a part of this neighborhood. So, I would bring an extra snack or bottle of water to give someone if they asked.
But one day I was in a hurry. A lady asked me for money to buy food. I looked at her eyes and saw that there was something wrong with them. There is no way she could see very well. I was in a hurry and uncomfortable. I said, "Not today". The lady walked on.
As she was walking away, I immediately felt the weight of my decision. I wanted to stop her and call her back. How is she supposed to get work and pay for food? I was haunted by Jesus' words - "Whatever you did not do for the least of these my brothers, you did not do for me." In that moment, I decided that if I was asked, I would always give something - a snack, a coffee, a meal, or even just a conversation.
Over the course of several months, I visited different restaurants and coffee shops with various homeless people. Instead of interruptions, I started to see them as intersections. The intersection of two very different lives. Each experience was slightly different. (I wrote about my most memorable experiences in Issue One of THE STREETS magazine.) One day I was caught in a rain storm downtown and met Jo.
Jo seemed pretty set in his ways. I asked him where he lived, and he told me I was standing in his living room. He asked if I could give him some money for food. I asked him why he didn't go to somewhere like Atlanta Mission to get food and shelter. He responded -
I wanted to ask Jo more questions, so I took him to get something to eat. We walked into a cafeteria style restaurant. As we were ordering his food, the manager looked him straight in the eyes and said, "You will take this food to go. Ok? To go."
He wasn't mean about it, but I was disappointed. Fortunately, the restaurant emailed me a satisfaction survey, so I took the opportunity to ask them a question via email-
"I came into your restaurant with Jo who is homeless and he was told to take his food 'to go'. I'm just wondering why he can't sit in the restaurant and eat."
The manager responded -
"Dear Meredith, We try to make our restaurant safe and clean for our customers to enjoy their meal. As you may have seen and experienced, there are many panhandlers and homeless people in downtown. We do not know every single one of them, but there are several of them whom we have encountered unpleasant experiences in the past. Jo is one of them. We have warned him several times not to panhandle, but he continues to come back, and he sometimes expresses violent temper when he is asked to leave. We understand your concern, but we have to draw the line, sometimes, in order to operate our business under the circumstance. We appreciate your business and hope to see you in the future."
This prompted me to look up whether or not panhandling is illegal in Atlanta.
In downtown Atlanta, it is illegal to ask for money within 15 feet of a building entrance, MARTA entrance, parking kiosk and various other locations. In 2015, Atlanta toughened its laws against panhandling and Mayor Kassim Reed was quoted in the Atlanta Business Chronicle as saying, "There are people for whom this is a living. That cannot stand."
And yet, I'm asked for money every time I go down there. So, I asked a police officer one day, "Is it illegal to ask someone for money down here?"
"Panhandling? Yes," she responded.
"What would you do if you saw someone asking me for money?"
"Nothing. It doesn't bother me. If you don't want to give them money, don't give them any money."
Hmmm. I didn't know it was up to a police officer whether or not to enforce the laws. Maybe that's part of the problem. But what's the solution?
So, I visited Atlanta Mission to find out what is being done to really help homeless people. I wrote about my interview in the magazine. After that visit, I came to several conclusions, which I didn't include in the magazine. It's a complicated issue, so I don't want to tell anyone else what to do. But here's where I stand now -
1. With God's help, I will treat every person as a valuable human being.
2. Giving people food or money is not necessarily the best way to help but can be an act of kindness. Use good judgement.
3. I will donate money to organizations like Atlanta Mission who are working hard to help people improve their lives in real and lasting ways.
As a side note, I've been interrupted 5 times while writing this post. It was not by homeless people. It was by people who live in my home. And every time I was interrupted, my initial reaction was to tell them to be quiet and leave me alone. The irony was not lost on me. It's often easier to treat people "out there" kindly. But when it's our own home or neighborhood...
(If you thought this post was interesting, you should see what made it into the magazine.)
Meredith M Howard is a photographer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She was inspired to start THE STREETS magazine after many conversations with strangers in downtown Atlanta.