Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Spanging and The Giving Season

By YBR Outreach Worker Bettina Souders

As we come into the season of buying and giving, I'd like to talk about Spanging.

Spanging is when people ask for spare change. I use the word spanging because the youth I work with use the word spanging. You may know this term better in the form of other words, everything from panhandling to begging, freelaoding, hand-outs, soliciting charity. You've seen it before. It's a person holding a sign while standing at an intersection that you pull up to in your car. It's a person who stopped you while you were walking to the Blazers/Timbers/Thorns game, and asked if you had a dollar for the bus. It's a youth you passed that was hunkered down on the sidewalk holding a sign while you were on your way into cash-only VooDoo Doughnuts or getting lunch at one of the many food carts in town. However you define it or view it or have seen it take form, simply put, it's a person in need of something asking for help, in this case, asking for some change to help them get by. 

If you have ever been to Portland, or lately increasingly its metro areas, you've had some experience with it. You've seen or heard someone asking, witnessed someone giving or declining. Maybe you've seen signs for or against it - the "no loitering's" or "donate here's." There have been articles printed, blogs about, and news media coverage of this action. In some capacity, if you've been in the city, more specifically downtown, or are part of the community, you've come across it. This is because Portland's homeless population is large and growing. Our society makes people reliable on money to survive, and spanging is one of the most accessible legal ways to make cash. It can get pretty controversial, whether it's helping or hindering, harm reduction or enabling.

It's not uncommon to be asked for money. Anyone in any life experience has experienced it. Your interaction may have been from a child raising money for school, a non-profit seeking donations, maybe someone you know needed something extra to help them get by for a while, communities have come together to pitch in after national disasters, or maybe you've been part of the latest phenomenon of internet crowd funding sources like Kickstarter or GoFundMe. We are coming into the "giving" season where organizations like The Salvation Army and their infamous "bell ringers" will be asking for donations of change as you walk into stores for a good month and a half. The Willamette Week does its awesome Give Guide, encouraging people to donate to listed non-profits with fun incentives. (The Give Guide is actually going on NOW, if you're interested :) ) Schools will being doing can food drives, coats drives, etc. And when you go downtown to do your Christmas shopping, someone will undoubtedly ask you for some change.

There are a myriad of reasons people like to give, and a myriad more why people feel uncomfortable giving. 

I'm here to tell you that it's okay to give. I'm also here to tell you that it's okay to not give. 

The most common reason I hear against giving money to a person who is spanging is that the person giving is not sure the person asking truly needs it. As someone who works with the people asking on a daily basis, my experience with "con artist" has been non-existent to my knowledge and minimal beyond my knowledge at best. It's possible that someone one had the best day ever in a rich city asking for spare change and made over a hundred dollars. Mostly, however, I feel if anything, people exaggerate and it's become a popular belief that most people asking for money don't really need to be asking, or they are capable of getting a job in the amount of time they spend spanging. The reality is that spanging is a difficult, last resort job; one people use to get them by until they can get a job that provides a paycheck. It's physically demanding having to be out in the weather, right now we are in our rainy season. More than that it can be emotionally demanding. Most people passing won't give anything, including eye contact. If a person does give something, it's usually pocket change, most people make at most $10-$20 a day if their givers were feeling generous. More often what they get is dirty looks, judgement, lectures, told to move, and in the worst cases, foul treatment, like getting splashed by passing cars or spat on. It can feel like a very dehumanizing task to take on to try to get a good meal for the day or a safe, dry place to sleep. 

Give Change or Cash

Any why it's important.

Survival. In most cases the person receiving money is going to buy food. It's true that someone might buy something else unhealthy with the money you gave, like drugs or alcohol. Most people won't though. Something to keep in mind with this worry of enabling an addiction, is that drug addiction is a very dark reality. Some people may ask for change intentionally to use it to purchase their drug of choice in an effort to survive. In some cases, like alcohol or heroin addiction, this could be a life saver for them, as with these two particular drugs a person can die from the withdrawal symptoms. It's understandable to be uncomfortable with feeling like you might possibly support a persons life choices with which you disagree. Keeping an open mind that each person you pass is doing the best they can to survive may help to offer some solace in these situations. 

Hope. Giving directly to a person sends a lot of subtle messages to the receiver. It says you believe they are trustworthy in knowing how to best care for themselves during this time. It says you believe they are worth that coffee you could have had or a load of laundry you could have done. Most importantly, you are not only acknowledging their existence as a human, but the existence of their suffering. No amount of money you could give them is going to be the solution to their situation, but you'd be surprised at how delighted a person will become when they know they can buy a good meal, or maybe get into a motel for a night. Faith in humanity: restored. 

No shelter. Sometimes services are full or closed. Currently our shelters are at capacity and have limited hours. Most shelters don't open until 5-7 pm and you have to be awake and out of the shelter by 6-8 am. So if a person works an overnight job, couldn't sleep at night, or couldn't get into shelter, they are out of a safe, dry place to sleep when they get the chance to. The $10 they made spanging during the day could possibly get them a room in a hostel or motel somewhere.

Hunger. It does not have compassion for time. There are many places that serve food around Portland. However, these places often have very limited serving hours, usually 1-2 hours, 3 at the most. If a person missed the time frame, they are out of luck until the next organization opens. So if a person were to get the midnight snackies, like we all do from time to time, they have to wait until morning. This is no big deal for you and I, as were have access to good food when we need it. But often, when a person surviving on the streets gets hungry, they get pain. 

Necessities. There are a lot of good programs out there doing their best to supply basic necessities to people who need them and may not have access to them. We at Yellow Brick Road are one of them. However, due to limited budgets and low donations we occasionally run out of stuff to hand out. There's also a myriad of supplies that we don't have a budget for and that are not often donated but in great need. These are things like fingernail clippers, toilet paper, ace bandages, batteries, flashlights, hand warmers, water bottles, lighters/matches, and candles. Any amount of money a person receives through spanging is often put toward things like this, if not food or shelter. Also, many people still have bills they are trying to pay, like a phone bill or a fine they may have received.

What if I don't feel comfortable giving money?

That's okay! Here are some ways to give instead.

Food. Many people are okay with giving food, and many people who are asking for assistance will be grateful for whatever you have to offer. I've seen people get excited over Halloween candy, day old bread, and even a persons half eaten left overs. They really are appreciative when a person is willing to help in any way they can. Some people will buy a person food from a food cart or restaurant, I know others that keep tabbed canned food (the kind you don't need a can opener for) in the vehicle and give it out when they feel comfortable.

Gift Cards. This is a great way to ensure your money is spent on food, if that's important to you, but you don't have the time to stop at a restaurant or don't want to lug cans around. Getting gift cards specific to areas you know are around the area that the person could easily get to can be a blessing. Maybe they are not hungry right now, they can go and get something with that McDonalds gift card you gave them later. Maybe they're really cold one morning and thirsty, a coffee shop gift card would be perfect for that. This method means giving more than your pocket change, but even just $5 helps. Just make sure to try to let them know how much the card has on it. Edit: Gift cards to the dollar tree are apparently highly desire and very useful!

Street Roots Guide Rose City Resource Guide. Or any resource guide you may know of in your county, as this one is Multnomah County and Washington County specific. This a a resource guide compiled of all the local resources available where a person may be able to go to help themselves. It has everything from medical care, A&D groups, where to get clothes, to food and shelters. You can check it out HERE. This is a very useful tool, especially for a person who may be new to town. Asking if someone has heard of it or would like one is never a waste of time, as they come in very handy. We as oureachers refer to them daily.

Donate tangible items. This time of year it's likely people are going to be cold. One-size-fits-all gloves or hats, hand warmers, coats, blankets, or sleeping bags are very much in need. Maybe throw a extra pair of gloves in your person, and if stopped, ask if they'd like something to help them stay warm? Other things that people often need are chapstick, toothbrushes, toothpaste, foot powder, brushes, etc. If they need it they'll say so, if not they'll also say so, and you could save your product for someone in the future. Socks are a major necessity, and pretty easy to shove in a coat pocket.

Donate to a non-profit. Both monetary and tangible donations are wonderful. Monetary donations can be use for special things like, if an agency gets low on supplies, or something like a holiday party, or celebrating a persons birthday. Donations of goods is always a need, we can never have too much supplies, and if we do, most places are quick to share with other agencies that also serve the population.

What if I don't feel comfortable, can't afford to, or just don't want to give away my money?

That's also okay! Here are some things you can do instead.

Say something. Maybe you know of a place they could go to and could point them in the right direction? Saying no, I'm sorry, I don't have cash, anything really (that's respectful) acknowledges that you heard them and respect them enough to offer an answer.

Eye contact. Acknowledging the persons existence is the least a person could do, and it goes much further than one would think. It says "I see you, you are a person." I've heard so many times from people that they feel invisible or like they don't matter. This chips away at that thought distortion and edifies a persons meaning. 

In the end, people have their personal reasons for giving or not giving, and both are okay. Make sure that you are doing something that you feel comfortable with. And please remember, the holiday season can be a lonely time, lets try to treat each other with decency and kindness.

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