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Homeless in February

It’s February, early evening. I’m on the Q train heading home. A young man in a beat-up, threadbare coat with a large backpack gets on at Union Square. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he announces. “It’s your money, and I know you’ve worked hard to earn it. You don’t have to give it to a homeless guy. There’s a hostel I’m staying at, and it’s going to be cold tonight. If I get twelve more dollars, I can afford a room.” I give him a dollar before he can finish his spiel. He smiles. “God bless,” he says.

I’m standing next to two young women, about my age. “Bullshit,” one of them says loudly to her friend. “He’s just going to get wasted. That’s what they do. They make so much money on these trains. I know it for a fact because my boyfriend used to do it. None of them actually sleep on the street, they just stay at their friends’ houses and get wasted all day.” The other woman nods enthusiastically. I say nothing to them. I go home and write them this letter instead.

Dear women on the subway,

I know you are having your own conversation, but I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to assume that you are, at least a little bit, talking to me as well. You probably think I’m a shmuck for giving a dollar to the homeless guy, and you may assume that I will be embarrassed to overhear your expertise on the true motivations of subway panhandlers. You’re not the first people I’ve heard talk this way, and I’m sure you won’t be the last. It’s true that most people don’t go into as much detail as you do; they are content to say “they’ll spend it on drugs” and leave it at that. But for you and all those others, the possibility that you will bequeath your spare change and little bits of pocket lint unto an undeserving person is worse to you than the monstrous reality that there are 50,000 people in this city who actually don’t have homes to live in. And for that, you are assholes.

This may seem harsh, but it needs to be said. While it is true that I think you both are assholes, I don’t mean to imply that you are the only assholes in the world or particularly worse than all the others. Nor am I including in my definition of “asshole” those who fail to give money to every homeless person they see–only those who are smug jerks about it. I also don’t consider myself to be better than you. I have been an asshole countless times in the past, and I know that I will realize in the future that I am currently an asshole in ways that I have yet to comprehend. It is easy to give a dollar to a homeless guy and feel like a generous person who has done your part. I would like to avoid this. Charity in a capitalist society can block the drive for truly radical change by providing an easy, feel-good outlet that avoids striking at the roots of the problems it seeks to ameliorate. Giving a dollar to a homeless guy is not a good deed that deserves congratulation. It is the barest minimum of human decency to give a small token of help to someone who asks.

We are taught that the poor must be scrupulously well-behaved to deserve any sort of assistance. We hold them to higher standards than we hold ourselves. The rich, meanwhile, do not come under such cruel scrutiny, even when they spend their money on drugs (or fancy cars, or extravagant vacations). It’s possible that both of you spend hours quaking with rage over corporate tax cuts and bank bailouts, but I doubt it. We live in a society that encourages this kind of thinking. There’s even an announcement that you hear on the subway all the time, “Soliciting money in the subway is illegal. We ask you not to give. Please help us to maintain an orderly subway,” as if the abstract idea of “order” is more important than the fact that there are actual human beings who don’t have enough food and have to sleep outside in the cold.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that everything you said about this homeless man is true. He sleeps not on the streets but in his friends’ houses, and he will spend my dollar on beer. You know what? Big deal. If panhandling on the subway were my chosen career, I would want a drink too. It’s possible that both of you are frugal teetotalers, but it’s a lot more likely that both of you, at least occasionally, enjoy hanging out with friends and getting wasted. I wouldn’t be surprised if both of you, like me, think that getting together with your buddies, watching Sex and the City 2, and chugging cheap champagne every time one of the characters makes a bad Orientalist pun is the very definition of a good time (ok, well…you get the point). If both of you had the misfortune to find yourself jobless, homeless, and without the support of family, you would still have the right to enjoy getting wasted with your friends. If your life sucked enough that panhandling on the subway seemed like the best option, you would deserve every bit of fun and joy you could come by.

No matter their background or life story, a person who carves out a living from accumulated tiny acts of kindness from strangers is a thousand times more commendable than a person who gains their wealth from the exploitation of others. A person who sits around and drinks beer with their friends all day hurts no one, yet it is the CEOs, the bankers, the celebrities, the present-day equivalents of the “Captains of Industry”– those who hoard so much wealth that they impoverish others–who earn our society’s admiration. What else is expected from a capitalist system that is collapsing under the weight of its own nightmarish cruelty? Until we can work together to radically transform it, do us all a favor. Don’t be an asshole.

Alyssa Goldstein is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents magazine and an intern at Verso Books. She graduated from Bard College with a degree in Sociology. She can be reached at alyssa.d.goldstein@gmail.com.

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