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Tech journalist since the dark ages. Windows Secrets, LangaList newsletter, Windows Magazine (NetGuide, Home PC), Byte, Popular Computing, yadda yadda yadda. Google me, if it matters.

This feed is mostly personal interest; it's NOT my professional writing. There's tech here, yes, but also lots of general science and some politics and weird humor thrown in.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Exploring Boston: My Failed Social Experiment

Like all large cities in the US, Boston has its share of homeless.

The problem has deep roots, but grew to crisis proportions in the Reagan years, when the GOP halved the budget for public housing and housing subsidization programs, and accelerated the deinstitutionalization of mental-health patients. Although Reagan signed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act late in his Presidency, it was a band-aid on a major wound.

Anyway, Boston has its share of homeless, especially during the warm months. They tend to congregate in the tourist and entertainment areas.

Some are obvious scammers. One approached me and said, "I was just released from the hospital and need bus fare home to New Hampshire." I asked which hospital, as I was on the Harborwalk, far from any medical center. No reply. OK, what part of New Hampshire, I asked --- as I'm still a legal resident there and know the State well. The beggar turned and walked away.

But many of the beggars are truly lost souls --- drunk, or obviously mentally unstable, or suffering from various physical maladies. Those really bothered me because I didn't know how best to respond when they asked for money.

Would giving them a buck or two really help, or just perpetuate the problem? But how would *not* giving money do any good?

I came up with a plan.

First, I did some research into the problem of homelessness in Boston, and made a non-trivial donation to the United Way of Massachusetts Bay --- the umbrella organization that seemed to offer the best conduit for actually delivering a broad range of benefits to the needy.

I also collected information on many other private, City, and State organizations and offices intended to deliver free services to the needy --- "free" in that they're paid for by tax dollars and private donations of the sort I'd just made.

Then I had a box of business cards printed, thus:

The idea, of course, was to help those in need find the help that actually is available --- free emergency help, free medical help, free food, free shelter, etc.

I then tried handing out the cards, giving one to any beggar who asked for money.

What a joke.

I've given away maybe 100 card so far, and one --- one --- recipient actually appreciated the information. He looked surprised that free help was available. I assured him it was no scam, that the help was real, and that I wasn't asking him for anything in return. It looked like it made his day.

As for all the rest, most tossed the card, refused it, or mocked me for giving it to them.

"I don't need help, I need a dollar!" one indignant female beggar told me.

"You offering me a job?" slurred a morning drunk. No, I said, but there's free food and a safe place to sleep, if you need it. "Fuck you," he said.

And so on.

As the summer went on, I began to recognize some of the homeless people; they'd stake out a certain corner or stretch of sidewalk, and work the crowd every day. Begging is their job. It's their chosen way of living.

I still try to give out the cards when I'm approached by a beggar I haven't seen before. But I doubt it will do much good. I consider this a failed experiment.

I'll donate regularly to the United Way and hope that it does some good, but it seems that there ought to be a better way.

Damned if I know what, though.