On my first day of sixth grade, my entire grade had an assembly to welcome us to middle school. We had a guest speaker who came to talk to us about community, giving and helping others. One thing he recommend was to never give a homeless person money. As an 11-year-old, this surprised me. He said that you never know if that money will be used for alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes, and that the best thing to do was to give to a charity that supports homeless people or to give the homeless person something like food.
This suggestion stuck with me and since then, I have never given a homeless person any money.
But what I did do was my own form of charity. In high school, I occasionally spent some weekends alone in downtown Portland, which is known for its staggaring amount of homeless teens. I encountered a couple of them. One summer afternoon when I was 15, as I exited a shopping center, I saw a homeless girl sitting on the sidewalk with a sign asking for money. Her face was beet red, burnt badly from sitting outside. I had no money to give her, and even if I did, I knew I wouldn’t give it to her. As a teen, I didn’t have a lot of money anyway, but I thought, I should buy her some sunscreen. It wasn’t a lot and probably wasn’t exactly what anyone would expect, but that was what I wanted to give her. I went to a Rite Aid a couple blocks away and I bought her the highest SPF sunscreen they had for about $6. I don’t even remember if she said anything to me when I handed it to her, but I felt good knowing that I gave her something productive, something that was going to last her a long time, and something that was going to help her much longer than a couple of dollars.
I didn’t just help homeless teens in Portland though. One afternoon, while I was at Target, I saw a homeless man sitting near a stoplight at the exit of the parking lot. I thought, I should buy him something. So I bought him some nonperishable food, like granola bars and juice boxes, some soap and a toothbrush/toothpaste combo, and some water and a few other things. The total amount was about $25. I included a little card of encouragement and when I got to the light, I rolled down my window and handed him the bag. When I was in college, there was an old man who looked like he perhaps had Parkinson’s from the shakiness of his body, and he had lost many of his teeth. He sat on various campus benches with a styrofoam cup, asking for money with a severe stutter. When I happened to passed by him near campus, I would buy him a coffee and muffin from the campus bookstore and leave it for him, although he never talked to me or acknowledge what I was doing.
In New York City, there are certainly no shortage of homeless people here either. One thing that Erik and I have started doing is buying food for the homeless people we meet. We’ve had some pretty interesting experiences. A few weeks ago we saw a homeless man sitting outside of the Columbus Circle Starbucks and Erik went up to him and asked him if we could get him some food. I asked, “Do you want us to get you a sandwich or something from Starbucks?” And the man looks at me like I’m crazy and goes, “A sandwich from Starbucks? That’s it?” I felt a little indignant, but Erik asked him what he wanted instead. The man requested some meatballs and rice from a deli about a block away. A much heftier, more filling meal, I noted. So that’s what we did. Except, the meatballs had marinara and cheese on it and that didn’t sound like it would go with rice, so we ended up buying some beef stew and rice, along with a diet Coke, a big water bottle, and a blueberry muffin for breakfast the next day. The man looked so grateful when we came back with the food.
Yesterday, as Erik and I were walking back to my apartment, an older woman, who we later learned was named Donna, stopped us on a street corner. Through her speech impediment, she nervously asked, “Can you please help me get a sandwich?”
Well, of course. As we crossed the street to the nearby Subway, Erik asked her how long it had been since she’d eaten. Donna said two days. She told me that her case worker told her that she wouldn’t be able to get more food stamps for another couple of days. Donna lives in the projects not far from where I live (don’t worry, I don’t live in the ghetto – there are projects sporadically throughout parts of the city, not just in Harlem and the Bronx). The woman had difficulty walking as well, and I wondered how well she was able to go out and get what she needed. As I ordered the sandwich, Donna asked if Erik and I were coming from church. I smiled and said our service is actually in the evenings, and Donna said she thought we looked like people who would go to church. That was probably the best part, feeling like we were actually doing God’s work in helping someone in need. Feeling like you are God’s hands is just about the greatest feeling there is.
Erik asked Donna if she needed anything else, like groceries. Donna was shocked and rattled off a couple of items. We went to the Rite Aid across the street and picked up a few items we thought could last her a few days until her food stamps came. Erik and I spent less than what we would spend going out to eat ourselves for a single meal and yet you’d be surprised how much a few items can help a person get by.
The point of sharing these stories is not to make myself look like a saint or all high-and-mighty, but instead to show just how easy it is to do these small random acts of kindness. It’s certainly not a fix, and it certainly isn’t going to save the world. But there is something wonderful about knowing that I gave something tangible to someone that they are going to be able to use right away. I think that’s one of the difficult things about giving to a charity and one of the deterrents from giving money away. You really don’t know what that money is going towards and who is going to receive it. There are thousands of people on the streets of New York, and the streets of every city in America and around the world, and yet, most of us don’t think to stop and talk to these people. Maybe we’re just too busy with our own problems. Maybe we’re too scared of what they might do or might say to us. Maybe we just don’t even think about it. But most of them are incredibly grateful and they don’t expect much. They just want something to warm themselves up or calm their grumbling bellies, and this is something that takes mere minutes to do. If you live in an area where it might be difficult to get to a grocery store or deli quickly, keep some granola bars or another necessity in your purse or car and hand them out when you can. In the end, I think it helps me just as much as it helps them.
What is your personal approach with homeless people? Do you give them money? Food? Serve at a soup kitchen?