Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Interesting Article on Homeless People and Debit Cards from the Toronto Star

A friend shared this article with me and it reminded me of a recent incident I had with a homeless person in New York...

As I was waiting at a bus stop, I overhear a man, who appears to be homeless, "grunt" something about wanting food. I had just gone to the fruit market and thought I would share it with this man. It took me a little while to offer it to him because he continued to mumble and grunt on about certain things that were slightly alarming/frightening... However, I finally decided to speak to him. As I offered him my bag of grapes, I asked if he'd like any fruit and the man's response was -- " why would I want your food - I don't know where you got it... you could have picked it out from a trash can and who knows what else your food has touched ... it may kill me! I would rather you give me money so I can buy things that I choose." Needless to say, I was in shock and had no response or comment to offer this man, so I continued to stand there waiting for the bus.

So the article below reminds me of this most recent incident -- and how, perhaps, if you are considering helping a homeless person with their requests -- in lieu of food and "hard" cash, you can offer someone a prepaid card to buy what they need (at least you know they will be using it for a pre-determined purpose). Anyhow, enjoy the article!

Joanne Mitchell, 60, and an acquaintance panhandle at a subway entrance at Union Station.

Joanne Mitchell, 60, and an acquaintance panhandle at a subway entrance at Union Station.

PHOTO AND STORY BY Jim Rankin/Toronto Star, Jim Rankin Staff Reporter

What would happen if, instead of spare change, you handed a person in need the means to shop for whatever they needed? What would they buy? Can you spare your credit card, sir?

In New York City, an advertising executive recently handed over her American Express Platinum Card to a homeless Manhattan man after he had asked her for change. The man, who had been without home after losing a job, used the card to buy $25 worth of deodorant, water and cigarettes. And then he returned the card.

Concerns over the wisdom of sharing of credits cards and credit card fraud aside, the unlikely encounter became a talking point — a feel-good story about, as the New York Post put it in a headline: “A bum you can trust — honest!”

Is that such a surprise?

Over the past two weeks, I wandered Toronto’s downtown core with five prepaid Visa and MasterCard gift cards, in $50 and $75 denominations, waiting for people to ask for money.

When they did, I asked them what they needed. A meal at a restaurant, groceries, a new pair of pants, they said. I handed out the cards and asked that they give them back when they’d finished shopping. I either waited at a coffee shop while they shopped or — in the case of those who could not buy what they needed nearby or were reticent about leaving their panhandling post — I said I’d return on another day to pick up the card. That’s when I would reveal that I was a journalist.

Some were unbelieving at first. All were grateful. Some declined the offer. Some who accepted didn’t come back, but those that did had stories to tell.

Early afternoon on Queen Street West. A young man with a short orange Mohawk haircut and a Superman tattoo on his left shoulder sat alone on the sidewalk, a skateboard at his side. A song by Michelle Shocked comes to mind, in which she asks: “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?”


His panhandling sign read: “Too ugly to prostitute. Spare some change.”

I asked him what he needed.

“Food would be nice.”

“Can I trust you with this?” I said, handing him a $50 card and telling him to buy what he needs, but that I need it back when he was done. He nodded and scrambled to his feet. He said he would be back in a half-hour.

He came back right on time, slurping from a large McDonald’s soft drink cup — root beer — and with sweat on his brow. He wanted to have pork and rice from a Vietnamese noodle joint on Spadina but they wouldn’t take the card. So, he scrambled to McDonald’s. Lunch was a double quarter-pounder with cheese.

He handed over the gift card, having spent $8.69.

His name is Jason. He’s 28, has brown eyes, a wide smile and good teeth. He has been on and off the streets of Toronto since he was 14. He grew up in Northern Ontario. His mother, he said, is a drinker and his dad died last year.

Now, he is homeless, living with friends or at a “secret spot” on the streets, but is waiting on an apartment. “I just got a POA for welfare,” he said. That’s a promise of address. He wants to get his driver’s licence and a job as a courier.

On a good day, he takes in $40 to $50 through panhandling, most of which he spends on communal food for friends. Of his most effective panning signs: “Like Obama, I like change,” and “Smile if you masturbate. Spare change if you like it.” He carries his belongings in a knapsack — just a bit of clothing and toiletries.

I handed the $50 card back to Jason to spend the rest as he likes. We shook hands and he went back to his spot on Queen.

A man sitting on a suitcase at Bay and King Streets was suspicious of the offer. “Can I buy groceries with it?” he asked. It was peak panhandling time and he did not want to leave his post. “Take care,” he said, turning down a $50 card. “But thanks a lot.”

This happened a number of times.

Another young man, James, was selling newspapers for the homeless in Yorkville. He said he was living with his sick and jobless father. “Truthfully, I’m okay. I have a roof over my head.” He turned down a $75 card.

Mark , who appeared to be in his early 30s and wore his hair in dreads, worked people outside the St. Lawrence Market. He walked up and asked if I could spare change.

“No,” I said, as I reached into a pocket, “but I have . . . ”

“A million dollars?” he grinned.

Mark said he was hungry for a meal at a restaurant. I gave him a $50 card and he asked if I would come with him. No, I said, go get what you need. I said I was meeting a friend and would be at a nearby coffee shop. He could bring the card back there.

Ninety minutes later, there was no Mark.

A record of the card transactions shows that Mark spent $21.64 on a meal at The Corner Place restaurant at Jarvis and Front Streets. The next day, Mark spent $15.50 at the LCBO.

There was a hot sauce promotion underway outside Union Station. Commuters grabbed two free bottles at a time. The vast majority walked past the panhandlers without a word.

“I need pants,” said Joanne, who squatted at the entrance to the subway, her right arm in a sling. But, no, she wouldn’t have time to leave her post to buy them and get back to hand over the $75 card I offered. I left it with her and said I would come back another day. She thanked me and smiled.

Same deal with Al, who stood around the corner, holding a sign that read “Hungry and Homeless.” He said he needed jeans and shoes. “Thank you kindly,” he said, taking a $50 card. “I’ll be here.”

Despite a few visits, I didn’t see Al again.

At time of writing, it had not been used.

A few days later, Joanne was back at her spot, looking rougher. She had a cough. She was panhandling with an acquaintance, a man who had appeared with a can of beer and poured half into her paper cup.

Joanne appeared sober. She remembered me. She had doubts the card was legit. An ex-boyfriend, she said, stole it. She hadn’t seen a penny of it, which her friend confirmed. “I couldn’t fight him,” said Joanne, lifting her broken arm.

A history of transactions on that card shows it was used nine times over two consecutive days for purchases at McDonald’s and the LCBO.

Joanne Mitchell is her full name. She’s 60, has one daughter and seven grandchildren, who she seldom sees. She worked for Bell Canada as a service rep but got “fed up.” She’s been panhandling on and off for 10 years and lives in subsidized housing. She broke her arm June 25 while trying to hang a picture and has been losing weight ever since. She was down to about 115 pounds, she said.

Joanne owned two pairs of pants. The pair she was wearing, green capris, were dirty and damp. “We could have done a lot with the money,” said her acquaintance. “Could have also bought some groceries with that.”

I promised I would be back another day with another card, to spend as she wished.

“I’ve been looking for you,” said Laurie, smiling. I’d left her with a $75 card a few days earlier at her spot outside the south entrance to the Eaton Centre. She’s there most afternoons, in her motorized wheelchair.

“Here’s your card,” she said, pulling it from her wallet.

She bought groceries that would keep her diabetes under control. She put $15 on a pay-as-you-go cellphone. She confessed to buying cigarettes. She usually rolls her own but treated herself. She did all of her shopping at a gas station convenience store, spending all but 39 cents

I explained myself.

“I’ve been wondering when a reporter might find me,” she said, bright green eyes sparkling behind bifocal glasses.

Laurie, 44, is living on the streets in the west-end and couch surfing with friends, including her ex-husband. In addition to diabetes, she takes medication for manic depression and has been diagnosed as having fibromyalgia. She must use the chair to get around and takes about 30 pills a day. She’s on a list to get into a co-op.

She has two daughters in university. One hopes to be a doctor, the other something to do with math. On a good panhandling day, Laurie will spend money in an Internet cafĂ© and Skype with her girls. On a “super-duper” good day, she’ll book herself into a cheap motel and watch TV.

Each morning, she works on her resume and sends it out to prospective employers. She has computer programming skills and can type “95 words a minute, at 98 per cent accuracy,” she said.

Her last job was about 10 years ago. Before she had to start using a chair to get around. She was a waitress at a greasy spoon in King Street. Since then, she has lived off benefits.

In March, she said, she slipped into a diabetic coma, and had it not been for her ex-husband who found her and called 911, she probably would be dead.

“I’m a very positive person and things can always be worse,” she said. And then she quoted a line from Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go,” said Laurie, “you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”

How the cards were used

Card 1: $50, handed to Jason. Spends $8.69 at McDonald’s. Returns card.

Card 2: $50, to Mark. Spends $21.64 at The Corner Place restaurant. Doesn’t return. Later spends $15.50 at the LCBO.

Card 3: $75, to Joanne. Card is stolen. Over two days, $24.95 spent at McDonald’s, $38.35 at the LCBO.

Card 4: $50, to Al. Card unreturned. Balance remains at $50

Card 5: $75. Laurie buys $74.61 worth of food, phone minutes and cigarettes at a gas station convenience store. Returns card.

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