Let’s set a scene:
You’re in middle school, running errands with a parent during the winter’s coldest spell. Leaving the department store parking lot, you see a woman bundled in more layers than you can count standing on the cement divider and holding a cardboard sign. In neat pink and black Sharpie it simply reads:
The car stops just in line with the divider. You see your parent struggling to avoid eye contact with the person standing five feet away from the vehicle, probably weighing their conscience against the all-too-common conjecture that you should ignore “panhandlers.” You reach into your coin purse, but you have about as little cash as most middle school students readily have on hand. Looking at your parent you ask, “Anything?”
Their eyes roll and they begrudgingly sift through their wallet or purse for a $5 bill. They hand it through the open window, just barely closing it in time to hear the women’s “Thank you, God bless.” As you drive off, your parent says something peculiar:
“You should really only give a hot meal to homeless people, or help them get a job. You know she’s just going to spend that money on drugs, right?”
Shocked, you don’t quite know how to respond; you simply offer a light, disapproving objection and quiet down. The conversation stops, but it’s not over.
This fairly common conversation occurs around the country, especially in areas of stark economic inequality. If you’ve ever been in a Facebook group for residents of your town or city, it’s not unlikely you’ve seen individuals complaining about “panhandlers” who are out to “scam hardworking folks,” ostensibly for drugs or alcohol — bubbles of contempt for people who are poor or unhoused. The stigma of addiction is weaponized against all poor people, whether they use substances or not.
On its face, the notion that someone asking for money outside a grocery store — or anywhere, for that matter — is going to spend it on drugs is absurd. Even abiding by the cruel logic of the capitalist, anti-addiction stigma, you can’t do drugs if you can’t eat. There’s no point in assuming the intentions of someone asking for money. (In fact, knowing what the rich do with their money, there’s great bias in this thinking.) If you feel the urge to give, give; if you don’t, suffice it to say no one will force you to. Rationalizing that decision by assigning the status of “untrustworthy addict” to someone you don’t know is simply dehumanizing.
Unfortunately, it needs to be said that not all panhandlers, unhoused people or poor people use “controlled substances” like drugs and alcohol. Some do, sometimes in moderation and sometimes not, but according to a study by the addiction treatment clinic Michael’s House, only 34% and 26% of the unhoused population abuse alcohol and drugs, respectively. Those aren’t small numbers, but they certainly aren’t large enough to paint all poor people with a broad brush.
If I could scream the following into the sky at the top of my lungs, I would: Poor people experiencing addiction are equally as deserving of a thriving life as the rest of the population. When they get brutalized by the police due in the name of the highly illegitimate “War on Drugs”; when they get evicted from their homes or their tents get swept and stolen by law enforcement; when they overdose or can’t receive treatment for chronic health issues — these tragedies are no less devastating than if they victimized a “white-collar” middle class person or family. Poor, unhoused and mentally ill people
In reality, addiction, poverty and are only denied solidarity because these conditions are seen as the consequences of moral failings. Mental illnesses are largely social phenomena. Addiction in particular is influenced by Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) such as family, school and work. Someone’s relationship with opioids may be completely healthy until they are evicted, lose their job or otherwise experience a massive upheaval in the organization of their life. SDoH such as the cost of housing, the job market, the level of inflation, the strength of the social safety net and one’s veteran status can be controlled through policy solutions prioritizing people over profits or arbitrary economic growth. Others, such as family death, can be managed through adequate mental healthcare infrastructure.
What happens when society gives money to poor folks is far more scrutinized than when the rich receive massive tax breaks and subsidies for their exploitative enterprises. It is a bold-faced reflection of capitalist ideology when those hoarding wealth produced by the working class are lauded while the victims of their hoarding are vilified.
Don’t erase people by replacing their identity with one-word pejoratives like “addict” or “crackhead.” Even person-less terms like “the poor” have a minute way of dehumanizing marginalized groups. Furthermore, unhoused individuals and those with addictions are worth your eye contact.
When politicians reference controlled substances as sources of crime, their rhetoric implicitly targets those whom existing housing, jobs and policing policies have failed, subjecting them to a harsher regime of policing and further marginalization.
We need to rethink our implementation of social welfare. We can start by treating addiction as a social illness, understanding that poor folks are our community members and allies in the struggle for a better world and having the decency to look people in the eyes when we cross paths.