Get Smart about homelessness and panhandling

by DGO Web Administrator

You’ve seen them sitting on the corner, but you’ve pretended not to. They’ve asked you what time it is and you’ve pretended not to hear. Now how’s about letting Kathy Tonnesson, executive director of the Manna Soup Kitchen, tell you about those damn bums who should get themselves jobs.

What is Manna’s goal?Our end goal would be to work ourselves out of a job, but I don’t think that’s probably ever going to happen, so our goal is to provide food and give hope to people in need. Social security, older folks, working folks that commute because cost of housing in Durango is extremely expensive. We want to provide food for anybody that needs it, including kids with backpacks and sack lunches for working people.

Why don’t you think you’ll work yourself out of a job?As a country, we have to figure out how to take care of people. We don’t have a great welfare system, we don’t have a good mental health program, nor do we have great addiction programs. It’s not that we need to be socialized, but we certainly need to figure out how to take care of our own. There’s that factor, of the people who are mentally ill or addicted, and then there’s the factor of fair wages for work. It’s a complex issue. Veterans who come back and who don’t reintegrate into society as easily as they thought they would, immigration – there’re so many things. Working poor families who have kids and who can’t get a job to get ahead, and have to have three jobs to make a mortgage payment. Older people on Social Security, they don’t get a raise in their monthly checks. If they’re not living in a place they own and their rent goes up, it’s troublesome. There’re always the people who just want to be off the radar, too. They’re young and they’re able, but it may be their statement against society that they’re not going to play by the rules. There’s some of that as well.

How do you stay positive?There are days where you groan and think, “We aren’t making any difference, we’re not doing anything for anybody.” You see the same people over and over and over. But then there are days where somebody comes in shouting, “Miss Kathy, I got a job today! I’m so happy!” Or when somebody’s super grateful for a lunch and says to you, “Thank you so much for being here. I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t!” We did a food drive not too long ago, and a lady came out with some groceries and said, “You know what? 10 years ago, I ate every meal at Manna, and this is the first time in my life that I’m able to buy something and give to you. I want you to know how much it meant to me.” That’s the sort of thing that brings tears to your eyes, and you don’t see it day-to-day, but you have to remember that it’s one story at a time.

You recently sent a letter to the community about panhandling …One of the reasons I put out a letter like that is our numbers are down. We are serving less food over the last two years than we ever have. So the uptick in panhandling is due to the ACLU ruling that it’s [the panhandler’s] right to do that. The city cannot write tickets. I feel like Manna has gotten blamed for that and, like I said, our numbers are down! Some of the people you see on the street we know, but a lot of the panhandlers we’ve never seen. Panhandling does not equate to homelessness. There are a lot of homeless people that camp out or who live in their cars and who eat here every day and you’d never see them panhandling. Of the panhandlers I know, some are homeless and some are not.

What keeps you from cynicism?We as a staff talk a lot and try to concentrate on the positives. It is really hard. There is a very high turnover rate here, and that’s one of the reasons. Manna’s longest executive directorship was two years, and most people who work here last about that long as well. We’ve all hit that wall. There are days I think, “I’m done. I can’t do this.” And others I think, “Okay, maybe I can make it for another six months.”

What gets you to that negative headspace?It’s very easy to be judgmental of people when you don’t know the whole story. I’m human, I do it. “Why can’t you get out there and get a job?!” But nobody really knows what that story is. For instance, there’s a woman who has two kids and her husband talked her into giving them up because he feels like he’s evil and he thinks it’s better if someone else raises them, and she stays with that man. She’s heartbroken, she has incredible anxiety. You look at her and think, “Wow, she’s got it together,” until you wonder why she’s at the soup kitchen every day. This is her community. I think, too, a deep faith in humankind is necessary – whether God or the Universe – you have to believe that we need to help people. Everybody deserves to be treated with dignity.

So what do you do instead?You treat them like you’d want to be treated. You don’t need to dismiss them, but you also don’t need to give them $10. I can’t say how you should react to people, but I do think that everyone needs to be treated with dignity. People just want to be heard. If you have the time to talk, awesome. If not, that’s okay, too. The other interesting piece to remember is that none of us is too far away from being quote-unquote homeless. Say you have $5,000 in your bank account, and you lose your job. If your mortgage is $2,000, that’s two months! We saw a lot of people losing their homes during the recession, and a lot of the people who we see here once had homes. It’s easy to think that something like that would never happen to you.

If you could tell people one thing they ought to know about the community you serve …They deserve dignity. Everybody has a story, and it’s easy to judge from the surface, but you can’t know anything until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for space.Cyle Talley urges you to check out the multitude of volunteer opportunities Manna has- cooking, gardening, cleaning, etc. If there’s something you’d like to Get Smart about, email him at: [email protected]

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