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.