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Helping Hands.

February 8, 2010

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?

  1. February 8, 2010 10:38 AM

    This came in a Sunday small groups a while back, and it was a great discussion. I recall talking about how so often it’s so easy to just look the other way or “keep walking” when a homeless man or woman is nearby. But it takes just a little heart to help out. We have a man named Willie here in downtown Indianapolis, who’s a regular near our office building. In the past, we all pitched in to by him a new coat for the winter because he’d mentioned someone had taken his. In the summer, I often get him an orange soda from our vending machine; winters I take him hot cocoa (it’s free) from our breakroom. He’s a good guy. And he now has a job sweeping up around our building every day. Does a real good job, and I greet him so much. This does make you feel so incredibly good, and you can help turn someone’s life around. Thank you for what you do, Allison!

    • February 8, 2010 10:54 AM

      That’s a great story! I love that you guys all bought him a coat. I bet that was so unexpected to him. 🙂 Very cool.

  2. February 8, 2010 11:14 AM

    That’s a sweet heart that God loves. Remember the parable of the woman who gave her last dime, versus the man who gave a whole bag of gold. Jesus said she gave much more than the man because she gave of her heart, not as a show. So by you helping out, you are giving so much more. Plus, it’s our job to be representatives of Christ her in this world. So if someone asked you if you were coming from church, then they saw Him in you. 🙂

    • February 8, 2010 3:02 PM

      I sure hope so! With so many crazy Christians out there, it’s nice to know I’m helping to give Jesus – and Christianity – a good name (not that He needs my help or anything but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt).

  3. February 8, 2010 2:54 PM

    Where I work, a lot of our clientele are less fortunate people who we try to give the skills to find employment – a lot of them have come from halfway homes, abusive relationships or even the streets, and we’re in a sketchy area of downtown where there are a lot of panhandlers. When I’m with D we often offer to buy them a sandwich, or sometimes I’ll give them a flyer for where we work, since we provide things like toothbrushes, shampoo, breakfast etc. all while teaching them how to find meaningful employment. Granola bars are a great idea 🙂

    • February 8, 2010 3:02 PM

      That sounds like a great place to work! That’s great that you offer homeless people something to eat too. I bet they really appreciate it.

  4. Melissa permalink
    February 8, 2010 2:54 PM

    All these small acts of kindness are awesome Allison.
    I’ve always been wary of giving homeless people food in case they take it the wrong way. A few years ago, a friend of mine bought an extra fast food meal and tried to give it to a homeless guy we seen – he looked at it and put it in the bin. This has really put me off trying to help, but I feel so guilty when I walk past 3 or 4 people sitting on the street every day on my way to class.

    • February 8, 2010 3:00 PM

      Melissa: The only time I’ve ever purchased something for a homeless person without asking was the sunscreen… and there was one time I gave a granola bar to a man with a sign asking for money for food. I was on my way to a JDRF meeting and it was all I had, so I gave it to him. You might try approaching the people you see and asking what they want. The Starbucks Dude was totally rude when I offered Starbucks, but totally changed his tune when I actually listened to what he wanted, instead of what was easiest for me.

  5. February 8, 2010 4:41 PM

    Great post! I love this! I am much more likely to buy a homeless person a snack or something then hand them $5. Who knows where the money would go. It always makes me worried that it would just be spent on drugs or alcohol so I like the idea of buying them something they NEED better!

  6. type1emt permalink
    February 8, 2010 8:06 PM

    Where I live,there aren’t very many homeless people but I try to give food if we run into any.It’s not always drugs/alcohol,etc that lands people in these situations & it could just as easily be me one day.Maybe a little thing but still important,people always seem grateful for it.

  7. February 8, 2010 9:09 PM

    It is hard to be a girl/woman walking alone in the big city and open your wallet when someone asks for money, so for safety’s sake I generally get food. In downtown Chicago you’d be surprised how many people do get a meal from passersby. One guy near my old building kept a collection of cups from the places people would buy from.

    My dad and his colleagues “adopted” a homeless Navt vet who used their heating vents in the winter for a shelter. He gave him bedding, clothes and shoes and gave him $5 every day for food (though only God knows if that’s what he used it for). Tony would sweep up and pull unofficial security duty in their parking lot in return.

    I have had some wonderful conversations, as well as some really bad experiences, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that they’re human too. Great post!

    • February 8, 2010 9:30 PM

      So far I haven’t had any bad experiences, but I think it’s just because I haven’t done it as often as I should. Also, I haven’t approached a homeless person alone yet in NYC, though of course, in NYC, I’m usually surrounded by people so I never really get that nervous when I’m talking to someone on Broadway in broad daylight. That’s a great story about your dad. Sounds a lot like Michael’s story! Thanks for sharing.

  8. February 9, 2010 10:21 AM

    Oh my goodness, you’re amazing!! I’ve been wanting to volunteer more but between work and school right now I really don’t have any time. It infuriates me because I’m a relentless planner and can always make time.

    Here one of the most terrible problems for the homeless is the cold, people die in the winter every year because it’s so awful here. But I love your granola bars idea, and one of the things that I do mostly is just notice people and talk to them like they’re a peer. I’m someone people seem to want to talk to, so especially when I was taking the bus a lot in the summer I ended up with friends at my main stops who would chat with me every day.

    Even just acknowledging people and engaging with them is so small but makes such a huge difference.

  9. February 21, 2010 3:02 PM

    Allison, thanks for sharing your stories. It is inspiring to hear that someone is doing such nice things. I started a year-long commitment to altruistic giving on December 15th, 2009. Every day I give $10 to someone I don’t know. I keep a journal about their story and what they will do with the $10. You can check it out at
    Many of the people that have received my $10 have been homeless. I have certainly learned a lot about what it is like to be homeless in Washington, DC. Certainly they like to receive food, money, essentials, but something that I think is important to point out is that they also need and appreciate conversation very much. Even if you are unable to give…stop and ask them how their day is going. Ask them their name and remember it so the next time you walk by, you can say hello. Trust me, it means a lot to them.

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