My Worst Bit of Charity

Hartford
The large building at the end of the right side of the street was the flagship store of the G-Fox Department store. About 100 yards beyond that was the “mud lot”

My friend Joey, was talking about “giving” over at her blog. It’s a great post, maybe you read it. I say that because Joey and I collect ‘Likes’ from a lot of the same people. We travel in the same cyber-circle. Maybe we think alike. She might quiver at that thought, but it could be true.

Joey said that writing about giving is hard because it seems like you’re bragging. I agree. I’m going to share two stories about giving, but neither one should seem like I’m bragging. One is trivial and one was a case where giving might have been a bad idea – at least that’s what I was told.

I was in Washington DC when I read Joey’s post and I had given a woman $1 the night before. I was on my way to dinner with a friend. The woman was sitting on the step of an abandoned building. She was asking for change. I normally avoid people like her. Some need change, I’m sure. Some also work the street for five or six hours and make the rent and the groceries that way.

They ran a story in the ‘80s about a guy in Hartford who panhandled all day near the large office buildings but then drove home to the suburbs in a BWM each night. It happens, but it wasn’t the case with this woman.

I don’t know what made me think that. I walk by a lot of panhandlers, but sometimes I hear a little voice that says “this person actually needs your help” and I usually listen to that voice.

I’ve been poor, but I’ve never been in poverty. Poor is when you don’t have enough money today or for a bunch of todays in a row or every time today happens to be at the end of the pay period. Poverty is when you’re never going have enough money unless things change in a big way. The times that I’ve been poor have been temporary (in school, recently divorced, owning a struggling business, closing a failing business) but there was always a way out. There were also people who helped.

Some people who have been poor take great pride in the fact that they pulled themselves up and therefore feel justified in not helping others. Some of those people were poor like me, poor but never in poverty. Some forget the help they received. Even those who managed to escape the clutches of poverty singled-handedly should understand that it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Most people can’t do it without help. The system isn’t wired that way and most people aren’t wired that way.

I worked in downtown Hartford in the early 80s. I parked in the “mud lot” at the north end of the city. Two bucks a day vs. $14 in a garage. I used to pass a guy on my way to my car at night who would be asking for money. He was homeless and an alcoholic. He wasn’t always there, but when he was, he knew exactly how much money he needed, and he was honest about why he needed it.

Hey, how you doing today? I need 87 cents for my bottle tonight, can you help me out with that?

I’d give him a dollar.

One rainy evening, he stopped me and said:

“Man it’s been rough out here today. I’m $1.75 short for my bottle and it’s late. You know I don’t usually need that much, but it’s bad today.

I started to take two dollars out of my pocket when a woman started yelling at me.

Don’t give him any money.

Excuse me, who are you?

It turned out that she was a social worker. She was out that night trying to get homeless people to spend the night in a city shelter.

It’s not what he needs. He needs to be in a shelter and he needs to get into a program to get him off the booze and then he needs job training.”

My buddy chimed in:

Those shelters are dangerous lady, and you know how long the waiting lists are for those programs you’re talking about? They go on forever. I ain’t going to no shelter.

Is he right?

Yes, sadly, but….”

Then, for tonight, I guess he needs two bucks.”

I gave him the money more as a defiant gesture than a bit of charity. I knew she was right, but she was talking about an ideal solution and he was living in far less than ideal conditions. I gave him the money because I didn’t have enough time or money to really help, and at least the bottle made him feel good for one night.

45 thoughts on “My Worst Bit of Charity

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  1. I like your definition of poor and poverty. I’ve been both and with the grace of God and hard work moved on but they are never places you want to revisit if you can avoid them. Here in my town we don’t have street people, but we have middle-aged men who park at the intersections of the various box stores with their cardboard signs soliciting cash as you stop or turn. Each of those stores has a long list of positions they are trying to fill, and I think if they can find their way to the intersection they could find their way into the store to seek employment. The other day we pulled up, looked over at the gentleman who was neatly dressed and noticed his Starbucks coffee cup sitting on the ground along with his Big Gulp soda. Enough said.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Judy. I drive past one of those guys every day. It’s hard to think that you could give panhandlers a bad name, but you’re right, these people should be able to find work. I don’t know what the problems are, and I certainly don’t know what the answers are. I do know that some people actually need our help

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good one. Talking about the poverty if you ever visit India, make sure you do not give money to beggars. I have nothing against them, but the fact is that it only encourages them to beg and never work. Beggars here have their own association, their block limits and handlers that do the financial handling for them. Its a booming sector that is built on mercy and sympathy. These days they’ve changed tactics. Instead of shabby clothes to incite sympathy, they wear decent clothes and act as if they’re stranded and need urgent cash. You might think Oh! poor guy let me give him some money to go home, but next day you might see him again telling people the same thing that he’s stranded without money and that he’ll return it to you once he reaches home. Unfortunately, this entire dramatics has been exposed so they have to work hard on their performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We have cities where begging is more prevalent but we probably don’t have anything like what you describe Sharukh. We do have people who will work a sympathy con. The typical story here is that they are on their way home, lost their wallet and just need enough gas to get a few towns down the road. They pick a distance that hints toward $10 worth of gas. Their clean clothes and nice car serve as props for the story. Like you say, once you move on, they will work that on the next person.

      When I used to give money to the guy who wanted a certain amount for his bottle, I used to walk by others who would be asking for “bus fare to my job” or some such line. It was clearly a lie and I didn’t even feel bad not helping.

      A lot of the people on the street here in the States are mentally ill. There aren’t enough programs to give them the help they need and most of the inner-city “hotels” that used to cater to indigent tenants have closed or been torn. There are no easy answers.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. We have a guy like your first paragraph here. Always $10. The Mister gave him money in the gas station parking lot summer 2013. Fall 2013, he came to our door, with the same story. The Mister gave him nothing, but did offer to walk the gas can down and look at his truck, but he didn’t want that, he wanted $10. Fall 2014 he came back to our door. There was a sense of confusion and urgency about him. He’s young and apparently healthy, there was something in his eyes that made me pity him. I sadly told him that he needed to stop coming to our house, we’d already helped. When I relayed the story to him, about how we’d encountered him three times with the same $10 broken down truck issue, he looked so miserable, as though he was shocked. Probably a drug issue. Gah, it was awful. I offered him a slice of pie and a coke but he declined. He hasn’t come back since.
        Anyway, I’m glad you wrote this post :) Giving is essential to all of us, and I’m glad to count you as a giver.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Part of me really wants to reply seriously to this and talk about how hard it is to say no and to stop giving. We had a minister who talked about the people who would stop at the parsonage and how he handled their requests. The other part of me wants to say “you offered him pie and he turned it down?…wth!”

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Enjoyed the story and perspective of poor vs poverty. I used to work in Manhattan and one day I came out of a deli with half a sandwich. A guy said he was hungry so I gave the sandwich to him. He swore at me and threw it on the sidewalk. I guess I stepped over the pride line and should have known the hunger was of a different kind. Have a good weekend Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John. Manhattan is a place where I can be oblivious to requests for money. Still, there have been times when I gave. I would have been upset with that guy (and, of course, now I am drooling for a NY deli sandwich. Please tell me it wasn’t Pastrami).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s always so easy for people to judge us for doing what little we can to help someone. They always spout what we “should” do. I think “Should” is the single most harmful word in the English language. Yet we go around shoulding all over ourselves… :D Mega hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The social worker might not have said “should” but what she did say screamed it silently… That made me think of it. But the remark about “shoulding” is something i spout frequently… LOL, that’s not to say you shouldn’t use should. :twisted:

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Many, many years ago while in Sunday School one of the Speakers touched on the subject of “when people do bad things with the money you’ve tithed” This was way back when there was a huge scandal about a BIG church whose main Minister/Pastor whatever misappropriated church funds for personal gain and property. What really resonated with me was this, ” If you give with a pure heart with the intention of doing good works, and helping God’s plan, then you did the right thing. You have no control beyond that. Don’t stop giving because it didn’t work out this time. It will come out right in the end.” Or something like that.

    Sometimes I’ve given a bit of money, but mostly I offer food. Sadly, more times than not the food is rejected even though they stated that they were hungry. In my naivety I probably misunderstood the hunger. I find it easier for me to give to the local soup kitchen, and shelters, and hope it all works out right in the end.

    You’re right though there are no easy answers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a great way to look at it. We try to give to local programs that we know work and are well run. Let the pros do the hard work because it is hard work and they do know what they’re doing most of the time.

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  6. Dan – your definition of poor and poverty is so clear and comprehensive. Thank you. I am saving this post for ‘teaching moments’ for Sparks and Raqi because it addresses many of the choices we make about how we give and why ( non-profit donations is another topic entirely – it’s a brewing idea/draft but I’m not putting any money on whether I write it before you; no, really, you first!).

    I have served on the board of a non-profit community health clinic as well as a city task force for evaluating sites for a newer, larger homeless shelter. The education I received from personal interaction, numerous tours and research, as well as consultation from those working in the clinics and shelters makes me concur with all you’ve written. Unfortunately resources are typically scarce; stigmas abound; and help isn’t always productive.

    There will always be a certain number of individuals who will refuse the available shelter and resources because they can’t or wo n’t follow the rules. However those advocating for those in need will tell you – like the social worker – that giving money to individuaks on the street hurts them more than helps them. Once I heard that from numerous shelter leaders, I think very carefully about how to guve.

    BTW as helpful as Food Drives are, the food banks also much prefer cash donations because their buying power is far superior to ours. It seems irrelevant when you think about 1-3 cand of beans but after learning what they can buy for $1 vs what I can buy, they now get my bucks.

    Thanks again for raising an obviously provocative topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sammy. I only recently became aware of what you
      Mentioned about food banks and buying power. We give $15 in order to be able to wear jeans to work all summer. Last month, we had a food drive. They will probably buy more with my $15 than we bought for $30.

      This is such a broad and complicated subject. I don’t have any answers but I follow my heart and my gut and I hope I’m doing more good than harm.

      As for non-profit donations, I tend to prefer close to home and local vs. national. Don’t get me started :)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I see her point but it is not really our place to judge. I give once in awhile and like to pat forward. Young mom’s touch my heart and those who collect bottles and cans. I like how you wrote this.
    Someone who knew me as a single mom with 3 kids (6 and under) put 4 passes to a water park and some cash in an envelope, I found when I got back from church one Sunday.
    Recently, I gave a coworker a $25 gift card for his and his wife’s anniversary. It made him so happy all day smiling. My oldest daughter and I took her 2 boys to this
    man’s family public beach party lat Sat. Carrie brought dessert and I brought crackers and cheese ball. Again, warmest welcome and people scrambling around 3 picnic tables to fit us in. Long story. But the best gift is unexpected and it continues to bless me.

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  8. A week doesn’t go by without me giving money. I give money multiple times a week, I always did. As a young adult I worked as a clinical counselor helping the kind of people who end-up on the street. Very few of them are on the street because they make money doing so. Helping oneself is not always easy, even with the best intention when you end-up on the street. I try to not judge and understand where they are coming from. I can’t help to think, if he or she was my child, I hope someone would help. Sometimes a dollar can help, sometimes not who are we to say. Supporting the organizations that work so hard to make a difference is also a great way to bring hope to this complex problem.
    There is a difference between sharing and bragging and I thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I liked this post very much. I agree with your distinction between being poor and living in poverty. My childhood had aspects of poorness (the food never lasted all month) and aspects of wealth (world travel, eating out a lot) so I was never sure if my embarrassment at the poor aspects (conserving food, making due on less, wearing hand me down clothes from school friends and then getting made fun of because of it) was justified or not. Now, I am definitely middle class. My heart goes out to people who are poor and living in poverty. They must feel like the world doesn’t care and doesn’t see them. That’s how I would feel. I think it’s great you give money to people without judgment. I was about to say everyone should live without judgment, but that statement is a judgment so I’ll shut my trap now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. When I choose not to give, when I walk on by without giving, maybe that’s when I’m judging. We can’t give to every poor soul, as much as it seems we should, but we can’t really understand the circumstances that put people in those situations or the conditions under which they are living. You’re right though, who are we to judge?

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  10. You’re right . Even a simple act of giving gets to be a complicated quandary . But then in your examples , one or two bucks isn’t much to fret over , one way or another , but becomes a self-analysis session for caring people .

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I like this post and it reminds me of the different ways you taught me these lessons as I was growing up. It’s so hard to know when to give and when not to give. There are no good or easy answers. But I agree, almost everyone who asks needs that dollar more than I do. As you said, many people are mentally ill and without the resources to get the help they need; in some way, lots of other people along the way failed them. In my opinion, unless we’ve been in that position, we can’t possibly understand what they’re dealing with and it’s not our place to judge.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s no sure answer. There are signs that suggest that the person isn’t being honest, but these days, the person could be employed part-time but still not be making enough to get by. There isn’t time to talk to them, so you have to go with your gut. I think you have a pretty good sense about these things.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Dan, speaking of panhandlers, there is a woman who sits along the road on my way to work. She is always there at day time. I have given her money on many occasions. By the time I return from work she’s gone. Recently, I was told that she owns a plot of land in Nairobi with several rental houses on it. She also has a supermarket. I was thunderstruck. I am still thunderstruck.
    Strange people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s similar to the guy who lived comfortably in the suburbs from his panhandling income. It does leave one thunderstruck. I hope these are examples of the exceptions, rather than the rules.

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  13. I love your definition of poor and poverty, Dan. It’s very concise, and yet very clear and it completely encompasses those differences.

    There is something commendable about the guy who was so honest about asking for money for his bottle, and if I were you, I think I’d have given him money too. I once walked past a man who was quite young, probably in his thirties, and begging for money to buy food. I went and bought him a sandwich and gave that to him, and he asked for the money instead. When I said that I wouldn’t give him money, just the sandwich, he threw the sandwich at me and swore. I was a bit shocked — I guess there was a drug issue behind his behaviour or something to that extent.

    I have also heard of people living on the street almost becoming institutionalised, like people who spend too long in prison, and who are unable to then function in normal surroundings or in a shelter. The homeless lady who lived near me growing up (and who as a kid I thought was a witch because she had grey hair) refused to be moved into housing, choosing instead to continue living on the street. All that says that there isn’t an obvious or easy solution to what is a complex issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting Celine. It is so very complex. I’ve heard lots of people tell about people asking for money for good but throwing food away. It’s similar to a story our priest used to tell about people asking for money for gas. He would offer to go with them to a gas station but they would refuse. I get it, they want the cash, but don’t they also have to eat? Don’t they also need gas?

      The guy whose habit I guess I was supporting avoided the shelters and institutions as much as he could. I think you’re right, his life had become the street.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. You’re right, Dan. It is a very complex issue. Sometimes, I remind myself, it is tougher to receive than to give. When someone asks and receives, he/ she puts dignity and self-respect at stake, and that can affect different people in different ways.
    It is so hard to know what is the right thing to do.
    In Singapore, it is illegal to beg, or to ask for money without handing something in return–licensed beggars sing/ play an instrument, etc.
    I try to help with local charities or working at soup kitchens– it terrifies me, the number of concealed needy folk, who wouldn’t make it if not for a meal from a soup kitchen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true what you say about putting dignity at stake when asking, especially since some people can be quite rude. Even when I refuse, I try to do so in a way that won’t make the person feel worse. The number of people in the world who need help to get through each day is astounding. Unless governments act, it will take everyone else doing a little something.

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  15. I sometimes feel that offering a kid’s meal from McDonald’s or Wendy’s is “better” than money for a drink but then I remember when I was hired at Community Action, then battered women’s shelter~ The Lighthouse~ and finally as an activity director for a nursing home that, “Your job is not to judge.”
    Each place had someone who told me this. It has helped me to keep on giving cash instead of buying food. I mean do we judge cigarettes? wine? beer? How about fast food or someone on welfare in grocery line buying donuts? I love donuts! I order fast food once a week. I have a wine bottle in my fridge. . .I used to give rides and now, thankfully the churches who offer free meals and rotate open doors for those to sleep in their pews have rides available from the library. The phone is free to use outside the bathrooms in their lobby.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think your point about not judging is the most important. I’m sure cash wasn’t the best thing to do, but it made him feel good and I doubt there was much in his life that gave him any joy.

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