On resenting the homeless

Kitty Meow, née Robert Brewer, of Caras Park since July. Photo by Kurt Wilson of the Missoulian.

Kitty Meow, née Robert Brewer, of Caras Park since July. Photo by Kurt Wilson of the Missoulian.

It is fashionable in Missoula at this moment to blame every petty nuisance on the Rainbow Gathering. That annual conflation of freedom and self-indulgence met near Dillon, Montana earlier this summer, and much of the overflow has lived in Missoula ever since. Specifically, they live in Caras Park and outside the grocery store. The sight of a dozen twentysomethings lying in the park drinking beer every day should not bother me, just as being asked for money whenever I buy milk is not really an inconvenience. All I need to do is ignore it. Yet somehow, I am bugged.

Evidently I am not alone. The state just spent $17,000 to clear out a longtime transient encampment on the west side of town, under the Reserve Street bridge, ostensibly to make the river more accessible to fishermen. Don’t read the comments on that or the Rainbow article unless you want to fall into a misanthropic spiral. There is nothing like learning internet commenters’ attitudes toward the homeless to make you feel bad about your own. It is the ethical equivalent of going to a Wilco concert and seeing all the dads.

The idea that we need to “take this town back from the bums” or that “this is the kind of people the Pov[erello Homeless Shelter] attracts” is repugnant to me. There is no way in which homeless people are getting a sweet deal from society. They enjoy no advantage over the person with a bed and/or a job. As enemies of the homed person, they are so thoroughly defeated that any ill feeling toward them constitutes disdain, or contempt, or any of the other pity/cruelty-spectrum emotions that so often make Nietzsche distasteful. ]

If you hate bums, you are probably a shitty person. Yet here I am, wishing that there were not always a few guys living in the picnic shelter at Kiwanis Park. I get angry when I take Stringer to the dog park and he comes running out of the brush with toilet paper. And I would like to be able to go to the grocery store without telling another human being who has obviously been sleeping on the riverbank that no, I will not give him the money that I intend to spend on organic spinach.

Maybe that is the crux of the problem: homeless people routinely force me to enact a failure of my own ethics. I waste a lot of money. I’m not buying gold chains and drive a probably unsafe car, but I am certainly spending beyond the level of necessity. I could easily give a dollar to everyone who asks, but I don’t—partly from habit learned in New York, but mostly because I am reflexively selfish. No, you cannot have my money for free, because that’s not how it works, even though I claim to wish it did work that way.

The Rainbow Gathering people bring this problem into relief, because they are homeless by choice. While I’m sure a percentage of Rainbows were forced into the lifestyle by socioeconomic conditions, most of them are transients as part of their idiotic value system. Everything should be free and no one should have to do anything, is basically the Rainbow ethos. It’s an airtight moral philosophy provided you are a small child, and it poses no threat to my conscience. I have no problem turning down a Rainbow panhandler, because according to my values his decision to reject society relieves me, The Man, of any obligation to support him.

I would like to believe the same thing about ordinary homeless people. “Most of them don’t even want jobs,” is the most common argument deployed by people who hate bums, because it puts said bums in the same category as the Rainbows. In fact, most of them are mentally ill, or have substance abuse problems, or fell into the vortex by which you can’t pay the rent if you don’t have a job and pretty much can’t get a job if you don’t have a home. While it is conceivable that some transients are homeless by choice, the terms of the choice are so unpleasant that almost no sensible person would opt for them.

In other words, the homeless deserve compassion by virtue of their condition, not because of the narrative behind it. The Rainbows are such welcome scapegoats because they offer a rare exception to this rule; their condition is an expression of their freedom to construct their lives in purely negative terms. For the rest of us, who construct our lives in terms of what we do, the homeless are vexing because they force a decision. We can help them, which takes work one way or the other, or we can put off living our values. I generally believe in helping people, I say to myself outside the grocery store, but not today.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. Thank you DanBrooks for summing it all up so well. Homelessness & poverty, as well as charity & greed, are not as black & white as some would have it seem.
    We consider ourselves to be Rainbows- we are Home Free by choice- and have adopted some of Gandhi’s philosophies… non-violence, voluntary simplicity/poverty, civil disobedience, truth~freedom~love for all mankind!
    Helping others is what we live for, so we can identify with your moral struggle as to where that line between helping someone & helping someone hurt themselves is.
    Daily we find ourselves judging others, labeling others…
    Babylonian, HomeBum, GutterPunk, Hippie, Yuppy, ShwillyKid, Junkie. It’s easy to see the differences, even to those folks who are well aware that, in reality, WE ARE ALL ONE.
    We used to give money to everyone who asked (cause we survive solely on donations too). Then we quit doing drugs, drinking, smoking cigarettes, eating meat, and driving a car.
    Suddenly our need for cash vanished (food is forever free, just check a dumpster & you will see) & we realized that we were not really “helping” by giving money to addicts, or to people who are just as bitter and wasteful as you damn Babylonians. JK :-) *kinda* LoL

    But attempting to determine who is going to use the money in the “right” way has proven to be tricky, or at least a moral dilemma for us because we want to support people who choose our lifestyle. We feel an obligation to assist those who honestly cannot take care of themselves (the disabled & mentally ill), and we truly understand how easy it is for anyone to lose employment & housing.
    But trying to gauge someones intentions (or level of sobriety) when flying past them at 35mph while they are standing on the corner with a cardboard sign is almost an impossible feat!
    In the end, all the judgement & giving to some but not to others just left us feeling empty inside. We were as emotionally void as someone who had plenty of money but refused to give any because of selfishness & greed.
    We don’t want to support the dollar bill or corporations anyhow- and the best way to devalue something is to stop using it, shun it, starve it.
    So now we just give away that which we are abundantly blessed with… FOOD & LOVE! The universe returns these to us thrice what we send out, so we never fear “scarcity” or have to use socially programmed judgements based on false predetermined misconceptions to determine who deserves and who doesn’t.
    It’s easy- everyone deserves food & love!
    Now that doesn’t mean everyone will freely accept them… sometimes our Lovin’ You! and peace sign is returned with a F%@K YOU! and the middle finger.
    Or the Junkie/Alcoholic immediately throws the orange/granola bar/organic spinach we gave them on the ground. But I’ll just have to toss around the possibility that they were Schizophrenic & thought the food was wiretapped, or perhaps they are allergic to spinach.
    Cause who am I to judge??

  2. “Everything should be free and no one should have to do anything, is basically the Rainbow ethos”

    If you go to a Rainbow Gathering you will be expected to haul water in buckets, chop firewood, help dig latrines, chop vegetables, cook food, or any of numerous other jobs, or you will be rejected and ostracized as a “Drainbow”, some one who just takes and never gives. The ones you see still hanging around Missoula were regarded as Drainbows at the gathering. The Family accepts everybody, now matter how crazy they seem at first, and out of 10,000 people who attend the gathering, there are going to be some left over losers. Our ways of rehabilitation are not perfect.

  3. Something to look forward to as the snow starts to fly… Drainbows going back to wherever they came from. They disgust me when I’m running through the part.

  4. My issue is not with panhandling…it’s with aggressiveness in panhandling. Walking with my child in a stroller across the Higgins bridge, I was asked for money. Politely said that I don’t carry cash (true) and was threatened with violence and death and threatened my child. His friend did the “Hey man, ease up” thing…which then let us get ahead of him – we called the police and not 30 minutes he was back in the same spot panhandling.

    There’s panhandling and then there’s what we experienced after the rainbow gathering THAT time has made us more than a little extra careful *every* time. Generally I help the homeless when I do have a little extra cash – the woman who was at a cross-road with a sign saying she was willing to work and anything would help, you bet, I handed her what cash I was carrying (it wasn’t much, but I hope it helped). She was gracious and was kind enough to say thank you. Most are if given the chance. It’s when they’re in your face making threats that they’re hard to swallow. Perhaps they’re in that few discussed who give the Rainbow Family a bad name…but they do more than that. They burn the rainbow bridge. It’s a shame.

  5. If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he will eat forever. That is, of course, providing that he is a willing student. The problem is that there are too many people who want a hand-out but who will refuse a hand-up.

  6. You only feel and talk so bluntly about poor homeless people, because they do not dictate the political and economical future of your country and your own, unlike the situation found in third world nations like in Africa, Asia and South America, where these homeless poor ignorant people empower greedy abusive governments who put their peoples economical future down. Being American just feels great right, we are allowed to be blunt and smell the flowers.

Leave a Comment.