Let's be careful about stigmatizing the homeless after stabbing death of Harford woman

It would be easy to turn our backs. To ignore the cardboard signs pleading for assistance, keep our windows tightly closed and lock the doors, and our hearts. To stare ahead as if we don’t see those less fortunate than us on the street corners.

This is doubtless even more the case after Jacquelyn Smith of Harford County was killed after giving money to a woman in East Baltimore who held a sign asking for help for her baby. A man appeared shortly afterward and tried to grab the 54-year-old’s wallet. Police said he stabbed her after a struggle. The suspects are still at large.

The incident has understandably sparked outrage. Already Oprah Winfrey has tweeted that she would think twice about rolling her window down again. There have been calls for cracking down on panhandling and laments about the danger that those asking for money can pose to everyday citizens. People are asking how the handouts are actually spent.

But we have to be careful not to let the incident stigmatize the homeless and the needy — and stymie our giving. Criminalizing homelessness won’t help the problem either. It’s the homeless who are usually the victims, vulnerable to harassment and burglary, and not the predators.

Sure, it’s natural to be somewhat apprehensive, but what happened to Ms. Smith was not the norm. Instead of letting our fears feed into bad stereotypes, why not renew the conversation about getting people off the streets and finding strategies that really work?

Panhandling on street corners surely poses more danger for the homeless — with the threat of getting hit and being outside in the cold or extreme heat all day — than it generally does the passengers and drivers in cars. Much of the homeless population would probably tell you they would much prefer not to ask strangers for money each day. Cobbling together enough coins and bills to eat is no solution to hunger.

Permanent housing combined with connections to wrap-around services is what homeless advocates say would be most effective for helping those with no place to live. You can’t get a job if you don’t have a place for someone to call or if you can’t make interviews because you have to be in line for a shelter by mid-afternoon or if you don’t have a place to regularly shower so that you can appear presentable. Many of the homeless suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues that won’t be addressed by simply giving them a roof over their heads, but shelter is nonetheless the place to start. Doctors can’t adequately treat basic health conditions if they are sending people back to live in unhealthy conditions.

City officials moved a step toward providing more people with stable housing this fall by funding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund by taxing luxury projects to help pay for more affordable housing stock in Baltimore. The fund was supported by Health Care for the Homeless and other housing advocates, which said it could prevent eviction and homelessness for several thousand families. Meanwhile, Mayor Catherine Pugh has taken a strong interest in creating shelters with policies and facilities that better meet homeless residents’ needs.

Still, much more needs to be done. We urge the city to look for other innovative housing strategies, such as the tiny house movement, which provides very small, yet affordable houses for the homeless.

In the meantime, drivers shouldn’t avert their eyes or be afraid when they see a homeless person on the corner.

The homeless say that since the incident, people are looking at them differently. That people aren’t giving as much. Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, told The Sun that incidents like this reinforce a stigma that only serves to further dehumanize and isolate homeless people.

We can’t let that happen.

Be cautious; not scared. Watch your surroundings and don’t leave your wallet open on the seat. Maybe don’t roll your window down on a dark secluded street. There are always bad apples.

But more than likely, it is just someone who needs a little help. So give a dollar or two, or help in some other way. There's a case to be made that donating to one of Baltimore’s many excellent service providers for the homeless is more effective than giving money on the street. But what we should not do is to let one incident, as tragic as it was, cause us to deny the humanity of the homeless — and lose our own in the process.

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