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Monday, December 19, 2011

Angry About Angels: Layaway Crap Versus Food

December 19, 2011 - By Tom Mannis - By now many of you have heard about the so-called “layaway angels,” also called “Kmart Angels” or “Wal-Mart Angels.” They are kind-hearted secret Santas, who have been anonymously paying of the layaway payments for strangers. An angel recently touched one of my Facebook friends. Warning: This post will upset some of you. I expect that, but it is not my intention.

I am truly happy that my Facebook friend was helped by a layaway angel. I am also happy that she is fortunate enough to have two jobs, a home to live in, and food for her family. Many folks these days cannot make it with only one, and millions do not even have that.

However, I do have a small issue with all of this. No, I am not saying the angels should not do what they are doing. I think it is a wonderful thing. It is people helping people, after all, asking nothing in return except feeling good about what they have done.

They seek no glory and there is no government (taxpayer) money involved. However, I do have one issue with the whole enterprise. Let me very clear that I commend these generous souls for helping out the less fortunate.

The problem I have with the angel activity is not with anything the angels are doing. Rather, it is with what they - and millions of other Americans - are not doing. It is a question of priorities and how we can get them wrong despite our best intentions. A recent story about the layaway angels by the Miami Herald noted that Wal-Mart only allows the use of layaway plans for toys and electronics.

The Miami Herald reported that "at a Hialeah Kmart on Saturday, someone paid for more than $400 dollars in layaway gifts. At an Ocala Wal-Mart, a man bought $2,500 worth of $100 gift cards for customers, and in Winter Garden, according to a Kmart spokesperson, donations have reached $5,000. They have reached as high as $15,000 in Orange County, California." The Miami Herald also noted that Wal-Mart only allows the use of layaway plans for toys and electronics.

The angels look for economically challenged (poor) people to help. That’s great, but let’s remember that in many cases the people whose layaways are being paid off could not afford the toys and electronics and that is why, after all, why they put them on layaway plans to begin with. Furthermore, those people will be taking their newly acquired luxuries to their homes.

This brings us to the misplaced priorities: It comes down to food and rent money versus Video Games and Barbie Dolls. The people being helped, in many cases, apparently felt it was more important to commit their hard-earned money to non-essential items instead of things that are essential for life. Crazy, fun things like, you know, rent and food.

The intentions of the angels are good and admirable, but they are missing an opportunity to do more even more good and to help people in real need by not including the homeless as part of their giving activities. I think it can fairly be said that a gift card to McDonalds is worth more to a hungry homeless kid than even hundreds of dollars worth of soon-to-be-broken-or-forgotten inedible toys are to a child who is not living on the streets or jumping from shelter to shelter every other night. I would include not only those who are already homeless, by the way, but also families struggling to pay the rent.

I’m talking about people who could not even enter into a layaway situation in the first place, because they are out of work completely and do not have enough to eat. The people being helped by the layaway angels, I dare say, are not suffering in that way. If they are, they should not have even considered spending money on disposable, non-edible crap made in China.

The Facebook friend who was anonymously helped with her Christmas shopping posted about it on her Facebook page on Dec. 17.

Here's what she wrote:

"Guess who just got touched by an Angel? You guessed it! MOI! I just got a call from Liz at my local Kmart that my children's Christmas layaway was paid in full and I can pick it up at anytime! I'm stunned! GOD is GOOD! I'm stunned and off to my 2nd job with the biggest grin on my face!"
Nothing here sustains life
One commenter quickly wrote, "Just proves that there still are some truly wonderful people out in the world looking to help out families they don't even know and without wanting anything in return, sooo awesome!!! :)"

My comment on that post was this: 

"They're nice, yes. But....... Doesn't it irk you a little to think that those 'angels' are happy to spend hundreds of dollars to help pay for unnecessary crap made in China, yet they'll walk right past a hungry homeless person who's just asking for a buck to get a bite to eat? I find the hypocrisy to be disturbing."

I should point out now that I became homeless for a few days in July, 2011. I was lucky enough to find a room to rent for a month and get off the streets after sleeping in a men’s shelter and bus stop benches. However, that was only a 30-day lease and I was homeless again in late August for two days. Through my network of friends, however, I found a clean, safe basement floor on which to sleep. I am not shelterless at this time, but I have virtually no money because - try as I have - I have not found a steady job in nearly three years. I have survived with the little bit of money I get for freelance writing and graphics, and from the occasional donation from people (some anonymously).

Remember, please, that I agree that these "angels" are doing kind things, and that I am sincerely happy for all of the people who have been helped by them. All I am saying is that our priorities seem out of whack. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to "help out families they don't even know," it should be remembered that those angels are not giving those families desperately needed food. Instead, they're being given beads, baubles and other non-essential trinkets.

What's needed more? Toys? Or food and shelter?
Meanwhile, there are "families they don't even know" who could use that layaway money to pay rent and avoid homelessness. There are entire "families they don't even know" who are already homeless, and the money from one angel's layaway assist could feed that family for a month.

At least one guy, however, became quite upset by the comment that I wrote on Facebook. His name is Tim. Although I said that what the "angels" are doing is nice, and I'm happy for the people they are helping, many to the tune of hundreds of dollars being helped. However, I also expressed dismay that some of those angels (not all, of course) would not give a buck to a hungry homeless person on the street. It's seems sad that they're so willing to help people pay for unnecessary crap made in China when real, dire, life-and-death needs go ignored.

Last time I checked, toys and electronics are fun luxuries and are not necessary for life. Food is essential, however, and while the secret Santa "angels" are doing a nice thing, it would be even nicer if they would include a portion of their generosity for those who don't even have a dwelling in which to put toys or electronics.Agitated by what I wrote, Tim left this comment on the same thread:

"Those 'evil rich' people helped us out!! I'm so thankful to God that people even in this economy are reaching out to those who really need the help. It's proof that we don't need our government to be doing all the 'helping.' I hope I'll be able to one day do the same for someone else."

That comment, and all of Tim’s subsequent comments, indicate that he has a problem with reading comprehension. It also indicates that he jumped to the false conclusion that I am against rich people. I am not. Furthermore, his comment about government is idiotic.

While I am in favor of a safety net for people in trouble, as a fiscal conservative I am opposed to welfare abuse. I agree that government often goes too far with entitlement programs and that waste is rampant, but does Tim really think that the one-week long action of the angels - helping to buy toys - is a substitute for that safety net? In addition, does he think that individuals giving money to homeless people is, somehow, government help? Tim’s thinking is twisted, emotionally blurred, and based on assumptions about things that he imagined I wrote but, in fact, did not.

I wonder if Tim is sincere about wanting to help others. I mean, what’s stopping him? Here is how he can “do the same,” but even more for a lot less dough. Instead of dropping $2,500 for somebody’s toys and electronics, which are not essential to life or health, how about buying a hungry homeless person two McDouble hamburgers for $2.00 plus tax? It might be all they have to eat today, while they wait another day or two for that free meal from a local church.

Better yet, give a homeless person a $20.00 gift card from McDonalds or Subway. You will help them to live, but people like Tim apparently think they do not deserve that. Perhaps Tim thinks that people who knowingly over-extend their budgets for non-essentials items deserve a hundred times or more as much money to help them pay it off.

Would he rather eat food or an Xbox?
That’s the kind of prioritization I am criticizing. Toys and electronics versus food for survival? This is not about class warfare, which Tim seems eager to wage. It is simply about priorities. It’s about people in desperate, life threatening trouble being passed over in favor of people who just want some more toys for their kids.

If Tim really wants to help people, here’s another way. He could contact Tom Cherrington, the owner of Cherrington Design & Building. He is one of Tim’s neighbors in Wheaton, Illinois, an affluent suburb 25 miles west of Chicago. It would be a match made in Heaven, I should think. After all, Tim calls himself as a self-employed commercial, residential painting contractor on his Facebook profile. Cherrington is not only a successful builder who might be able to throw some work Tim’s way, but was in the news last spring.

In April, 2011, as reported by CBS Chicago, Cherrington “held a rally for the homeless at the old Hubble Middle School, hoping to drum up support for his vision to transform the building into a center for the homeless.” (Note: CBS misspelled his name as “Cheerington.”)

Cherrington told CBS that he got to know a homeless man in downtown Chicago. Cherrington learned about homeless people from that man and he started visiting shelters. “These are people’s mothers and sisters,” Cherrington told CBS. “I was amazed at the amount of older women. I was amazed at the amount of kids and families.”

Nice, but will you make the rent?
Therefore, Tim, who wishes he could help people, might consider contacting Mr. Cherrington. They could conspire to get toys donated to kids for Christmas, if not this year then next year. It would cost Tim nothing but a few hours a month to help, I am guessing, and it would be a nice way for him to do some professional networking, too.

Tim is undoubtedly a hard worker who has risen through the ranks to the highest rung of his one-man corporate ladder, and that’s admirable. He is, I believe, one of those people who believe that if he could make, darn it, anybody else can too.It does not matter to Tim if they are too hungry to think straight, don't have bus fare or can't get a bed at one of the local overcrowded shelters.

Tim seems to think that every homeless person should sit down at a computer, print out a stack of resumes, shave, put on a suit and drive around to interviews. Tim doesn't care, apparently, that many of them cannot afford a basic phone, which makes a job hunt difficult.

This is all okay in Tim's world, apparently, where his Social Science degree from an evangelical Christian college and his personal belief system make him believe that toys are more valuable than food, and that anybody who loses their job and home and has to live on the streets because they have no friends or family to help them should just whither and blow away.

Tim's Social Science degree taught him that everybody who is homeless must be drunk or on drugs.  I'm not sure what the Social Science curriculum at Tim's alma mater  consisted of, but it seems not to have included anything about real life. They seem also to have passed over that whole Christian charity thing that Tim seems so eager to deny to “homeless bums.” His complete ignorance of any knowledge of the reality of homelessness, and his utter lack of compassion for them as a whole, does not speak well of his Social Science diploma.

Tim seems to also believe that if somebody else fails, it’s bad form to ask for help. It is not, I say. Only a fool would not ask for help if he or she is in desperate need. Sometimes, asking for help takes the form of standing on a street corner asking for spare change, and it's often not for drugs or booze. If you suspect it is, buy that person sandwich or granola bar. Even drunks need to eat, and I condemn nobody to death or misery because they have a substance abuse problem. God helps those who help themselves, but God also smiles on those who help others. To not ask for help is tantamount to suicide, which God frowns upon.

I wonder if Tim is aware of the Midwest Shelter For Homeless Veterans. They are located in his affluent neighborhood. I wonder if he considers the homeless vets to be a bunch of bums.

Tim’s “evil rich people” remark was obviously directed at me. Tim apparently has a difficult time with reading comprehension, though, because nowhere in my original comment, or ever anywhere else, did I criticize anybody for being rich. I said that the angels are doing good things (“They're nice, yes.”) What I was criticizing was our screwed up priorities. The angels are helping people in need who have put themselves in debt to Kmart and Wal-Mart for non-essential items. Toys and electronics, for example. There is nothing wrong with private citizens helping those folks.

All I was pointing out was the fact that there are people in far greater need of help. If an angel wants to pay for somebody’s Xbox or Barbie Doll, that's their business. I am just suggesting that they also drop a dollar into the hands of the next homeless person they pass, or into a Salvation Army bucket, or give to your local food pantry.

Tim, with palpable bitterness, decided that he needed to attack me by implying that I was attacking "evil rich people." If Tim knew me anything about me (he does not; we are not Facebook “friends”), he would know that I am a staunch conservative and have no history of attacking anybody for their wealth - or lack thereof. Like Tim, I do not resent wealthy people. To the contrary, I admire them for the sacrifices and hard work and ingenuity that made most of them rich. Unlike Tim, however, I do not resent, nor am I prejudiced against, those who are poor and in desperate need.

Tim then left another comment there:

"What is the problem with providing some toys that would make a child happy? Walking past people on the street, most of which use the money to buy booze or drugs, is actually better than feeding their habit. If they really needed food, there are plenty of legitimate places to go. It's only common sense. Same "angles" [sic] donate plenty to shelters and the like. I don't get what your problem is."

I did not say I had a problem with toys per se, and I certainly have no problem with happy children.

My response to Tim:

No problem whatsoever, Timothy, I am sincerely happy for the people who are helped by those nice people. I just think it's sad that a higher priority is placed on paying for non-necessities than for helping a hungry person. You are obviously under the false impression that all homeless people can just go somewhere and get food whenever they want it. Have you ever been homeless Tim? I have been. Went homeless in July. I'm one of the lucky ones because I quickly found shelter through a network of friends, but I am struggling to find work and I often go hungry. I don't know what planet you live on, Tim, but there are not "plenty of legitimate place to go."

Even in good economic times that is not true, and these days hundreds of stressed shelters and services (public and private) are closing or cutting way back. You wrongly assume that all or most homeless people are drunks or drug addicts. There are certainly those people, Tim, but since July I've gotten to know a lot of homeless people in the Madison WI area. Of the 80 or 90 homeless folks I've become acquainted with, none were ever drunk or seemed on drugs. Most, except for maybe half a dozen, were constantly looking for work. A few took to begging only when they had no choice. Sure, some people donate to shelters, or to United Way or other channels that help shelters, but the number of those people has dropped as economic times have gotten harder.

The number of homeless people is rising, Tim, and I'll bet some of your neighbors are damned close to becoming homeless themselves but you're just not aware of it. Madison has seen an upsurge in homeless people recently because Janesville WI closed its only public shelter. That put more strain on the Madison shelters, public and private. And by the way, shelters are not hotels. They take you in after 7 or 8 pm, then put you out 12 hours later. So there you are, on the street, no job, no money.

"Keep the food, give me some electronics!"
Some churches provide free meals - once a week. What do you do, Tim? Your clothes are wrinkled, maybe dirty, your grooming is not what it could be if you had a private bath and access to a clean bathroom anytime during the day. Your hunger slows your thinking ability. Employers like you, bigoted against the homeless by assuming that they (we) are all shiftless drunks or addicts, won't give us the time of day if we try to apply for work. A lot of people become homeless for a wide variety of reasons, Tim. A spouse abused them and put them out on the street with no money. A job is lost and another not found before the money runs out, and you lose your apartment or house and have nowhere to go but the nearest park bench.

Maybe there's a shelter in your community, but maybe that shelter is more dangerous than the park bench because of violence. Perhaps you had a catastrophic medical situation and the medical bills have drained your resources after the insurance money ran out. There are many other reasons. Do me a favor, Tim: Please let me know where it is that "there are plenty of legitimate places to go" when homeless people really need food and I'll be happy to spread the word.

"By the way, I tried to look up what they teach in Social Science at Trinity. Apparently, they teach only theory and don't bother with real life. Unfortunately, however, when I went to "Social Science Major | Trinity International University" my antivirus program warned me that a "threat has been detected."

I reposted that publicly to the original comment thread. The next morning, Tim responded with another private message to me:

So you want to be provided a free hotel? You want to deny children the gift of toys because you suffer from homelessness? Give me a break. I can see by your attitude why you remain homeless. I can name a church that gives out free food twice a week and there is no income verification necessary, no registration, no questions asked. You make it too easy and you end up with even more homeless bums sitting around with their hands out. It's human nature. You subsidize it and you'll have more. But this is all off the topic really. What do you have against poor children receiving help from strangers so that they can have memories of a Christmas with toys? What do you have against children sir? Who pays for your internet sir? And why are you so angry?

She has nothing on layaway.
Again, Tim’s utter lack of reading comprehension skills clouded his prejudiced thinking. (How did he interpret my statement that “shelters are not hotels” to mean that I want to be provided a free hotel?!?)

My response:

I'm not angry, Tim. You're the one who expressed unfounded anger toward me by venting your hateful prejudices about homeless people. I am not, by the way, homeless as you say in your last message to me. Again, your poor reading comprehension skills prevented you from seeing that I previously wrote that “I quickly found shelter through a network of friends.”

You see Tim, it’s not MY attitude that’s kept me unemployed for three years. Rather, it’s the attitude of employers who are afraid to hire because of uncertain times, but also there is some age discrimination (I’m 56), and the fact that I have no car and am living in an area with no public transportation makes it difficult as well. I’ve got an extensive background as an administrative assistant and executive assistant, some management experience, and was once the Assistant Media Director of the American Conservative Union.

So don’t tell me, Tim, that I have an anti-work attitude. I’ve applied locally at a gas station, a pizzeria, temp agencies and other places but I am not getting called back. A local warehouse just laid off 144 people in this town of 25,000. That does not exactly help my chances. So I spend the day on the Internet, both looking for work and doing some writing that get a little money for now and then. By the grace of God, some friends donate a little money once in a while via PayPal.

As for who pays for my internet, it’s none of your business. I’ll tell you however, that it’s included in the pittance I'm paying to sleep on someone's basement floor.

Tim, I honestly think you're delusional: You read things into what I've written that are simply not there. I wrote that "shelters are not hotels," but from that you concluded that I want to be provided a "free hotel." How strange. Did they not teach reading comprehension at the college you attended? You say you can "name a church that gives out free food twice a week." Well, that's nice, but it does not contradict anything I said, Tim. I wrote that some churches give out food, most once a week. As for the one you know of that gives it out twice weekly, well that's nice, but it only goes to my point. You wrote, "If they really needed food, there are plenty of legitimate places to go." "Plenty?" Really? One church that gives it away twice a week is plenty of places?

As you have seen here, I never suggested that children should be denied the gift of toys. All I suggested was that in addition to helping people buy toys, the homeless should also be considered. Tim asked what I have against poor children get help from strangers. I have nothing against that, of course, but I would ask why Tim is so upset by my suggestion that homeless people - many of whom are children - receive help from strangers so that they have memories of a Christmas with food?

What Tim seems to ignore is the fact that there are plenty of people like him, fellow independent contractors, who have become homeless in the bad economy since 2008. Suddenly, with no business as potential clients dried up, many of them were not able to make ends meet. With no money for rent or mortgage or property taxes, some became homeless. I do not wish that on Tim, but I wonder if he ever considered that as a possible fate for himself. Perhaps not. Perhaps Tim believes that he’s Superman and will never have a major medical experience that breaks his bank. Perhaps he thinks that he will perpetually have a steady stream of new business coming in. Maybe Tim’s contracting business will never be sued by an unhappy customer, and maybe - just maybe - Tim is immune to the countless other misfortunes that can and do befall a lot of people.

Tim’s last message to me before I posted this came as a comment to that thread.

“A little angry sir? Anger management goes a long way to getting a job. But you are wrong to assume that I'm bigoted, or haven't been in need before.”

I don’t know what Tim’s definition of “bigoted” is, but his remarks are those one who is bigoted against the homeless. He wrote that since “most” homeless people “use the money“ given to them “to buy booze or drugs,” never giving them money “is actually better than feeding their habit.”

Mirriam-Webster.com defines bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group ... with hatred and intolerance.” That's Tim in a nutshell.

Tim cannot possibly know how every homeless person spends their money. Without knowing what many of the homeless people use their money for, Tim has a narrow-minded bias against them. “Homeless bums,” he said. Nah, that’s not hateful or bigoted.

Perhaps most confusing to me is Tim’s statement that he has “been in need before,” yet he can be so unsympathetic to those who need help the most. He did not specify what that meant, or whether it included living on the street. I am sincerely happy that he pulled through his hard time with absolutely no help from anybody else. However, Tim conveniently ignores the fact that millions of other people are, at this moment, in need, and are not as superhuman as he seems to be.

Many homeless people manage to pull themselves up and off the streets. It can take them years of struggling to do so. Many others just can’t catch a break because of the bigotry - bald faced, unabashed bigotry - that they face from people like Tim every day.

Merry Christmas to you Tim, and to everyone else.

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