The face of homelessness is usually panhandling. It’s the personal touching point, that gets past the statistics and numbers for many of us.

Madison’s official stance is to not give money to panhandlers. So much so they spray painted a small area downtown which was the official legal “panhandling” spot. I find this offensive. If there were donation boxes throughout downtown, I’d be happier.

If panhandling has to be discouraged, I want to see alternative solutions.

A few years ago a man approached me in a parking lot at Walgreens on the south side. He said he was from out of town, his wife was in the hospital with their child, and he needed money to get them back home. I gave him some money. A few weeks later the same man approached me in the same area, and he had the same story. I said no, and smiling that he had already used that story on me a few weeks ago. His face blanched and he disappeared quickly evaporating into the dark.

For me the biggest struggle is wanting to give but in a way that helps. Another time my son and I are were shopping downtown. A man approached me for money, I said I’d buy him a meal as it was lunch so the three of us went in to a pizza place. It was a bit awkward. I wasn’t sure what the right thing was to do — I was fine sitting at the same table but I wasn’t sure what we would talk about. What would be offensive, what real communication could occur? There is such a divide in life experiences, and the fact is we had no idea who the other was; the fact I think nothing of buying lunch downtown and getting a high end beverage with special vitamins. I was embarrassed by the disparity. But I was ok with that, it was an opportunity to get a view into a different kaleidoscope. But we ended up sitting separately, and I was left thinking here’s a moment in time a tiny difference was made that I didn’t really know very much about. It was a slice of pizza and $5.

Another time I wrote in my journal in Peace Park in the late 90s. A number of people were there, and one started talking to me about why I was there, and asked me what I was writing about. I said God (which was true). He looked fearful and stepped away leaving me alone to my thoughts. It was rather funny in a way.

Part of my interest in Madison’s homeless population stems from the issues it raises on so many levels — what really helps? what is helping in our culture? what rights do I have as a human being? What rights do others have? When I was suspecting someone of living in my garage, all sorts of thoughts streamed through me. On the one hand, that I wanted to share the warmth and shelter I have. It is crazy to not have shelter or a place to go to the bathroom. Ridiculous to me. On the other hand, it’s hard getting along with people in close quarters. Relating and community are tender, and I remember well enough from my younger years freeloaders who invested nothing in bettering themselves but did invest heavily in exploiting others. I had and have no interest in this. Yet it must be a miserable life to have to pee in one’s pants, to seek shelter and to have to avoid being seen.

Discovered for downtown it’s illegal to:

  • sit on a sidewalk
  • public urination or defecation
  • sitting in a bus shelter unless waiting for a bus


I’m left wondering what we are thinking as a community. Are there bathrooms available to people with no homes? This is central to me in Madison’s homeless. It’s basic, it’s something we all need to do multiple times a day.

Anyhow those are my thoughts this morning. I’d love to hear your perspectives on this. It’s not a clear cut and dry issue.


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