We asked Steve Rhoades the basic and often asked questions about responding to the homeless crisis on the streets of Seattle – of any city, for that matter. Following is this candid and exclusive interview with Extreme Sobriety. From his experience, he shares an inside perspective of the growing street life and why many remain homeless. Read his answers to, “How should we respond to the panhandler living on the streets?” “Should we give or should we keep our change?”
How should we respond to panhandlers? How do we know that the street person’s needs are genuine? Is our money just fueling a bad habit?
Many people who are panhandling are not addicts. Remember that. They’re just lost in life. Like other U.S. cities, Seattle got a lot of people from Katrina, the New Orleans hurricane of 2005. These people are scattered all over the United States. They can get what they need in our city, as Seattle has many services that provide for them.
There are a lot of kind-hearted people in this part of the country. Many times I see professional people walking off the ferry and giving money to the panhandlers. They appear to feel really good about helping out.
If you want to do something, give the guy or gal a meal. Don’t give a Subway card or a McDonald’s card, because they’ll sell it. I think it’s 25 cents on a dollar. That’s a market some of them are working.
Can you tell me about instances where you offered to take him or her to a homeless center?
They know where it’s at.
But have you personally encountered this?
Oh yeah. They say, “Oh, I know where it’s at.” I reply with, “I guess you don’t need my help, then.” At that point, they know that I’m not going to give them anything.
With your experience, you are able to figure out who genuinely wants help and who is just running a racket. Do you want to say anything about that?
Well, I know a street drunk. After becoming sober, I worked as a bike messenger for seven years, and then walked downtown for three more, trying to help those folks out. I know them. First of all, homelessness is awful depressing. A drunk on the street is the worst life a person can live. The people who come to downtown Seattle are chronic in their addictions – and until they hit bottom, they’ll stay addicted. They’ve got to ask for help, and they have to mean it. For the older one who has been living on the streets for a while, it’s going to take everything he’s got to come out of it. Everything. He’s got to want it more than the drugs and alcohol. When I was in the shelter, we were probably losing three people a week to people who didn’t want to give up the drugs or the alcohol. Some of them take in $100 a day. Others collect $10 or $20 for a bottle of wine, and they’re done. The more that people give money to them, the longer they’re stringing out an existence that too often ends in the homeless person’s death. That same money could be the street person’s overdose money.
Many panhandlers are professionals. Hell, they’ve got apartments nearby and just come downtown to hustle. Until the work dries up, they’re not going to change.
When you’re downtown, walking along the street, and a panhandler makes eye contact with you and begins to engage, what do you do? What do you say?
I know when the guy is conning me. To the one who’s been there a long time, I just say, “Well, I can’t help you out buddy, but if you really need help, go to the Compass Center. If you need, I’ll go with you.” In Seattle, we have the Gospel Mission, The Bread of Life, the Millionair’s Club, The Compass Center, etc. This is the United States. No one is going to starve – especially in this city. The addict, the guy that’s working the baseball games, is like a door-to-door salesman. The more doors he knocks on, the more yeses he’s going to get.
How about the person with a dog?
(Steve Chuckles) Don’t give him a penny.
What do you say to those compassionate people who want to help the folks on the street?
You can really show compassion by selling your second car and giving the money to your local homeless shelter, the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army. There are so many organizations that are in business for just this purpose. I’m pretty hardcore about that. You might also offer to take the beggar to a homeless shelter. You will find out really fast if he or she is serious or not. He can get 21 free meals a day in Seattle. You can be assured that he won’t go hungry.
Why don’t many of the street folks want to go to the shelters?
They just don’t want to. They want to keep doing what they’re doing because it’s working for them. They’ve gotta realize that their best thinking put them on the street. Now – God love them – the professional social worker who does this all day long, every day – it’s really hard to go and hang with the same crowd of homeless people and hear the same crap. Remember that most of these people downtown have met with a social worker and sworn that they’ll do everything they’re told to do. They get housing and whatever they need. Then they ask, “Can I drink and drug here?” “Oh, sure,” they’re told. It doesn’t work. In order for him to get off the streets, a person has to want it, and want it more than anything he’s ever wanted in his life.
What about people you see who have very severe handicaps, including the amputee?
They’re the ones who work on the goodwill of others the most! The shelters will bend over backwards for the handicapped. They’ll do everything – especially for them!
Those are hard luck stories. They’re rough.
Sure they are! These people are disfigured or mentally unhealthy, and they’re the ones who make more money. I saw a panhandler pushing a wheelchair near the courthouse behind Pioneer Square. He had probably come down from the Medical Center. A little later, I saw him downtown, sitting in the wheelchair, and begging for money. He was wearing a Marine Corps hat and had put a big brace on his leg. He didn’t have that brace before. I lit up on him. I jumped up and down on the wheelchair and lost it because he was playing the vet deal. I call those guys on it, because there are a lot of vets who do need help, and I know who they are. I don’t blame them. However, they’ve got a check coming, so they’re doing fine.
How about the women with babies, or children? That’s hard to see.
I saw a Mexican lady with three little ones, waiting for a store to open up. That hit me. I gave her my poncho. There’s a Mexican shelter near where she was, so I knew she could get the help she needed. I could dedicate all my work to just that shelter.
When there’s a child involved, there are child protective services and resources, right?
So we don’t want to be giving them money, either?
(Heavy sigh) Well, that’s a hard one. You can always go back to offering to take them to a shelter. Because look, this is what is going to happen. They’ll use those kids to get money. Especially in downtown Seattle and in the U.S., there is no place that will not help a mother with children.
Have you encountered any problems?
As long as the panhandlers are not hurting anybody, the cops cannot do anything; but as soon as the guy or gal puts a hand on somebody, or does anything goofy, they’re gone. All the street people know the line. Once, during the time when I was still living on the streets, two guys followed me into an alley. I knew they were following me because I could see their reflections off the mirrors and the glass of the buildings. I went in on purpose, just to make sure. Half way in the alley I turned around really quick and got rough with them. I said, “Is this really your very best thinking? Do you really think you’re going to take my stuff from me?” They started talking in circles, “Oh no, man, we weren’t going to …” I said, “yeh, yeh, you better just keep walking.” I had to do that! I had to make a presence. I had to let that world know that I’m no one to mess with. The word got out. I always wore the same stuff, all the time, so people downtown knew who I was.
Seattle seems to attract a lot of homeless people…
People come from all over because they know they can get the services in Seattle. If people in downtown Pioneer Square give to panhandlers, they better not complain about the urine smell.
Don’t I know it.
I know – you walk through it every day, and on hot summer days coming home, it’s pitiful. I’m ashamed.
The city should be ashamed.