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Why I gave a guy a dollar

Am I really a 'sucker' for helping another human being?

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:42AM

As I walked home from doing errands on Monday, I saw an older man standing near the entrance to a shopping center parking lot. He looked wrinkled and weary and underfed, and he held a cardboard sign: "Homeless, anything will help." I put a dollar in his hand and said, "Take care of yourself. I wish it could be more." He replied, "God bless you." 


Then a silver SUV roared up, sunroof open to let the summer rays strike the male pattern baldness within. The driver wore pale blue sunglasses so I couldn't see his eyes, but I could read the sneer on his face. "Sucker!" he yelled as he drove by. 


Maybe I am a sucker. I didn't know the backstory of the man to whom I'd given that dollar. He could have been a drug addict or a Level 3 sex offender.

He could also have been a disabled veteran, a downsized executive, a laborer who aged out of his profession, an uninsured guy who lost everything after catastrophic illness.


His past didn't matter to me. His present did: He was a human being in need. I had a dollar to give, so I gave it.


Scam or true need?
When I got home I told this story to my daughter. She observed, "He was driving an SUV with gas almost $5 a gallon and you're the sucker?"


I laughed, but brooded about the incident for the rest of the day. While waiting for the bus I've heard remarks about a guy who regularly works a corner in my neighborhood. The tenor of those comments, too, has been, "What a scam." 


Later I looked at the "Do you give money to homeless people?" thread on the Women in Red message board. Some of the respondents were harsh, calling beggars "bums" or suggesting that "most panhandlers are too lazy to get a job."


I'm disheartened by generalizations like "most panhandlers." How can we know what "most" of a group is or is not?

Hardening our hearts
Of course it's possible that some do this instead of looking for a square job. You may even read an occasional news story about "affluent beggars." But I'm skeptical that people routinely make big bucks doing this. I also wonder how many people would choose to stand outdoors in all kinds of weather with no guarantee of financial return.


Of course it's possible that some beggars are drug addicts or alcoholics who refuse treatment. You might feel that you cannot in good conscience help that person kill himself. I can understand that, because there's alcoholism on both sides of my family. 


However, it's also possible that the man or woman holding the sign is not that different from you. Maybe he got laid off, fell behind in his rent and had nowhere to go after being evicted. Maybe she went broke beating cancer, only to find that no one will hire her now.


Maybe this could happen to any of us -- and maybe that's why we're hardening our hearts.


Helping or harming?
Whether to give directly to panhandlers has long been a contentious issue among charities and homeless advocates. Depending on whom you ask, cash money either enables addicts or keeps poor people alive while they wait for a job, housing assistance or mental health counseling.


Sure, the money I gave might have gone toward feeding that man's addiction. It might also have gone toward the Dollar Menu. I have no way of knowing. 


What I do know is this: The guy who called me a sucker did so from the confines of a pricey vehicle. He didn't slow down long enough to look into the beggar's eyes.


I did. I got a very strong vibe of hopelessness, as though this man were starting to forget that he was a human being. 


How much can I afford to give?
Our uncertain economy will affect how much spare change people can spare. Some of the Women in Red respondents noted that they're barely making ends meet themselves -- they can't afford to give. 


Technically, I shouldn't be giving either. Several family members are elderly, have chronic health conditions or are economically squeezed. They could use my help. More to the point, I'm 50 years old and a full-time student who’s employed only part time. Shouldn't I be tending my own yard before anyone else's?


Of course I should, and do. But once my basic needs are met and I've put something aside for the future, there's still money left over. Some of it goes to family and some to strangers on the street. 


I can't save everyone. There comes a point when I have to say, "I'm sorry, I've given all I can afford to give today." I don't know the answer to hunger or homelessness, but I can't pretend that it has nothing to do with me. I can't close my eyes to need.

Published July 16, 2008
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