The Greensboro News & Record’s Joe Killian had an interesting interaction in downtown Greensboro last week:
As I was handing it to him and he was thanking me, a guy walked past who was dressed basically as I was — dark, pressed suit; button-down collar; well-shined shoes. He looked at me and at this homeless man and stopped in front of us suddenly.
“You really shouldn’t do that,” he said to me.
“I really shouldn’t do what?” I said.
“You really shouldn’t buy them food,” the guy said, speaking to me as if the homeless man wasn’t there.
“If you give them money, they buy drugs,” he told me. “If you buy them food, then they spend the money they’d spend on food on drugs.”
“OK,” I said. “Thanks for the input. Have a nice day.”
I began to tell the homeless man good luck and to take care when the other guy broke in again.
“No, really,” he said, more insistently now. “You don’t know how they are. Giving them food isn’t your smartest option.”
Finally, I just ran out of patience.
“Your smartest option is to mind your own business and get out of my face,” I said to him.
Apparently surprised that one guy in a suit would speak to another like that over — you know, just this homeless guy — he looked spooked and quickly moved on.
The homeless guy thanked me and went on his way.
This is the kind of story that will strike a cord with everyone, but not in the same way. Most, if not all of us have had to make the decision on whether or not to help a person who is asking for help. Personally it used to be a lot easier for me: if I had money, I gave some and if I was buying a meal I would just add an item for the person who said she was hungry. It never occurred to me that the person asking might not need it and that I might be getting taken for a ride.
As I got older that changed. Partly that was the result of bad experiences, like the multiple times I was asked for money, offered to buy the person food and was told in no uncertain terms that I could keep my f***ing food if I didn’t have any money for him. Then there are the incredible number of times I’ve been approached at a gas station by someone with the same sob story we’ve all heard about needing to borrow a dollar or two to help buy “just enough gas to get home to <fill in the blank city about 100 miles away>.” Some of the change was the result of hearing from multiple sources, including experts who deal with the homeless, that giving them money was a bad idea because it just enabled their addictions. The end result is that I became hesitant and that hesitance has often led me to do what I call the Guilty Mumble and Run.
The Guilty Mumble and Run is exactly what it sounds like in that when I’m asked for help I divert my eyes, say something like, “Sorry, got nothing on me” and then speed up my walk to escape the situation. The guilty part is the following time period where I feel guilty about it, but it’s not for not giving them anything, but for not having the guts to just say I don’t want to or don’t feel I should and instead lying to the person and not giving them the common courtesy to look them in the eyes.
Quite frankly this didn’t use to bother me that much because I let myself believe that my actions were justified, that I didn’t owe these people anything, and that they were actually being rude to me by coming up unbidden and asking me for something. But that changed over the last few years when I started doing things that brought me into contact more often with people who had hit hard some hard times, but who had an incredibly difficult time asking for or accepting help. It made me realize that as hard as it was for me to handle being asked for help it had to be infinitely harder for the person asking for help to find themselves in that position.
So that’s what has sealed the deal for me. Sure there are the folks out there running a scam like the folks at the gas station, and there are those who are on the street who will take whatever I give them and turn it into their next fix, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t at least do the right thing for me. That is to help those I can and look the others in the eye and tell them exactly why I can’t. At least then I can live my life without ever having to do the Guilty Mumble and Run again.