Looking Out: ' ... have us believe'

May 5, 1999

' ... have us believe'

' ... have us believe'

By Brandon Astor Jones

169>The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under brides, to beg in the street and to steal bread" — Anatole France, 1844-1924

In a recent letter, someone asked me to elaborate on the differences between a street person and a homeless person. Well, that can be a complex endeavour. I will do the best I can.

A street person is not necessarily homeless. That is to say, while (s)he may not have a place to live in the traditional sense, the street is his or her home. This means, of course, that a street person may not be particularly interested in getting off the street. It must be noted too that, while a street person seeks as much in the way of creature comforts as do the rest of us, (s)he is just as comfortable being uncomfortable — even very uncomfortable.

Often I have tried to "rescue" street people by offering them a clean, completely safe and private motel or hotel room for as much as a week. Sometimes they would not take such a gift. Conversely, a homeless person would jump at such an opportunity in a New York minute!

A street person begging for "spare change" may use what you give him or her to purchase wine, cocaine, a newspaper, etc., but a homeless person will use every cent that you give him or her to either eat, get to a potential job sit, and/or pay for a place to spend the night (or day) off the street. A street person just wants to endure the street for another day; a homeless person really wants to get off the street.

To the untrained eye it is difficult to know the difference between the two. Yet, in either case, it is callous to deny them your help because very often one does not know which of the two (s)he is. That is to say that on occasion one thinks that (s)he is a homeless person but in reality (s)he is a street person or, vice versa.

So you see, the pathology of urban poverty — and the mercurial mental health levels that frequently accompany it — is not nearly as simple as the City Hall folk would have us believe.

[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He welcomes letters commenting on his columns (include your name and full return address on the envelope, or prison authorities may refuse to deliver it). He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G3-63, Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA.]

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