By Rosalie Tirella
That’s what the Worcester City Council must have decided when it voted to treat the city’s panhandlers, folks who beg for money on our streets, the way you would treat, say, a stubborn case of cooties! Yikes! These critters are pesky, a pain in the neck and a public health scourge! Let’s just wash them out of our hair the way you would any varmint.
So our city leaders, lead by City Manager Mike O’Brien, our uber-expert when it comes to urban ills and the downtrodden, decided to make being out in our public streets exercising your freedom of speech a crime. Just the way they do in Russia when the peeps there get too full of themselves. Vladimir Putin would be proud!
So, the city has now decided to give out panhandlers little cards, with the new ordinance spelled out and a phone number to call if you need food, shelter, etc. These push cards are to be given out by our city cops, some of whom are not the friendliest or most sensitive people in Wusta.
I was talking with a pal in social services yesterday about Worcester’s panhandler problem. Let’s call my pal “Ann.” Well, Ann has been working with the city’s poor for decades and has a ton of insight. She is familiar with the struggles of so many city families. She has, over the years, seen it all, and she is half heart, half tough street smarts. While always there to help folks she also knows when she is being conned. Yup, some needy folks, especially heroin addicts, cocaine addicts, can be the biggest liars. Their addiction, so intense and powerful, makes them that way. Businesses, families, condos, etc are lost to drug addiction. Alcohol is also powerfully addictive, for some folks, some bodies, some minds.
Ann told me yesterday that by the time an alcoholic or drug addict has found himself or herself on a street corner begging for money, they have pretty much lost everything. You can’t tumble much lower.
When asked how the city’s push card campaign was gonna fly withthey majority of our city panhandlers, Ann gave me a knowing, world weary look.
Giving a person a card with a phone number ain’t gonna cut it. In fact, the city’s strategy is laughable: Drug addiction can take years to beat, with numerous stays at detox centers, numerous relapses, many moments of despair.
In short, Ann agreed with me that the city, like Boston, needs to hire homeless outreach workers, people who can actually counsel these folks, work with them over a period of weeks, months, maybe longer, if people are lucky enough to survive that long. Ann was direct when she said most addicts, hardcore junkies, alcoholics die. Drug addicts die from getting their bodies so sick or at the hands of a pusher. Drug dealers do not suffer dead beats gladly.
Ann went even further than I have, when it comes to dealing with the city’s panhandlers. She advocates sending out the outreach workers with serious resources, like the ability to get a person into a detox bed immediately, like the ability to help pay a person’s rent for a room, apartment. Beyond dropping them off at the Mustard Seed. Beyond driving them to a food pantry.
Ann told me some interesting stories yesterday, call them drug addicts I have known through the years. One story centered on a drug addict who kept getting dough from a good hearted priest, telling the padre that he needed the $50 to buy food for his family. Ann was visiting the priest when the junky was making his call. Ann knew he had a habit. What are you doing here he asked her. She said I could ask you the same question!
To cut to the chase, Ann told the priest not to give the guy money because he would only spend it on history addiction, not groceries. She went back and forth with the junky who tried to bs her but finally pulled up his long shirt sleeves to show Ann his needle tracks. It was a gesture both honest and heartbreaking.
Another drug abuser that Ann worked with: Years of the ups and downs of trying to stay off cocaine, losing his business, wife, home. Finally, he managed to beat back the demon – stayed straight for months! He called Ann to tell her the great news … and to take her out to dinner.
To celebrate his sobriety. To thank her for staying after him all those years. Working the problem, not dismissing it. Or him.