People always talk about what you should do when a homeless person asks you for money. As if there’s a response that would work in every situation.
“Definitely only give food, never money.”
“Make them work for it, like have them do some yard work or something in exchange for money.”
“Just ignore them; they’re all con men anyway.”
“I give a small amount of money to every person that asks.”
“They make more money than I do. I have college loans.”
I’ve been a regrettable part of some of these conversations. They can feel like scenario-based tests. What if the person isn’t actually homeless? Would it be more helpful to help this person find a job? What if this person is actually somehow secretly rich from the money they make off the altruism of strangers? What if they just want drugs? Do they really have kids to feed? There’s never enough time in the moment to fully address all these concerns, even if there was a way to do it. You don’t have the time (and also it would be weird) to have people fill out a ten page questionnaire before giving them some spare change on your way to work. So with all these questions popping into your head, it’s easier to just throw a dollar in a cup or walk by pretending to ignore them.
In a book I was reading, there was a chapter about not closing your heart to others, about living a life full of radical love. I became inspired to serve the world and take care of my city, even in small ways. I thought I could make a difference in my community by loving each person I interacted with out of the goodness of my own heart. Pray for people on the bus. Compliment the cashier at the grocery store. Help the elderly lady cross the street. There would be music playing in the background of my life, and birds singing all around me, even in November in D.C.
But then I had a bad day.
Stupid stuff piling up. Stuff I totally had the coping skills to deal with but didn’t. An ingrown toenail in my foot, super painful. A million hours in the doctor’s waiting room. An inability to see the specialist immediately. Missed bus. Wasted day. Empty stomach.
It’s so embarrassing because I always know I am so fortunate. But when my emotions tell me I deserve to have an easy, pain-free life, I become foolishly, unnecessarily angry when things don’t meet my expectations.
Wrapped up in my petty frustration, I walked down the sidewalk. A woman called out to everyone passing by. “I’m hungry. Can I have some money for something to eat? Could I have something to eat?”
It haunts me that I walked by without helping.
We all walked by. We felt protected by the presence of each other. We felt that because we all ignored her, it was the right thing to do. We had talked about this in the comfort of our living rooms and agreed.
I walked by. I was so upset with my own first world problems that I ignored the greater problem of someone else who called out to me. Those previous conversations about the collective homeless population made it easier to do it. Because I had talked to others about “the homeless” and what was the right approach, I did not view this woman as a peer, a fellow person with hunger pains and dignity and a need to be loved. Because I allowed myself to think, “What if she’s not really hungry?” But what if she was?
I really hate that I walked by. I knew that I hated it after I had gotten on the bus and could still hear her asking for help. I wanted to yell to the driver to stop the bus so I could run back and take her to lunch. I wish so much that I had.
I get that we need to have conversations on how to solve big problems like homelessness and poverty and hunger. I understand feeding one person doesn’t change the whole world. I also know some people are enabled by acts of kindness. But I’d rather err on the side of buying a few too many lunches for those who don’t need them or giving a few bucks to someone when I shouldn’t have, then to walk by a person in need as my heart grows more callous each day.