Two weeks ago I snubbed a homeless woman on my ride home. My driver’s side window was open. It was uncomfortably hot and muggy, and the air was full of diesel fumes. Her deeply tanned & cracked skin had seemingly endured many years in such conditions, nonetheless she could not have been enjoying it.
She approached me holding a heavily creased, unrolled cardboard sign. Using a marker, she had written her story, though it was barely legible. The handwriting was difficult to follow and the English was worse. Something to the effect of “Please help, homeless, need money for my family.” In the upper right hand corner there was a photograph of her and her two children. It was a boy and a girl of elementary school ages. I broke my gaze from the sign, and she looked me dead in the eye and begged me: “Please help” in a meek voice with a thick accent.
Out of shame, I could barely keep my eyes looking back at her. I mumbled something softly to the effect of “not today” and quickly looked away. Perhaps at that moment I didn’t want to be bothered to fish my wallet out of my jeans. Except, I’ve done that plenty of times before behind the wheel. I think I was fiddling with my cellphone at the time too. Or at least pretending to.
Before I turned away, she gave me a cold stare that I’ll never forget. The traffic light changed, and I started towards the corner. Three seconds later, my stomach sank into my pelvis. What had I done? I couldn’t give this poor lady one dollar? One dollar when I spend $2 every morning on a Starbucks coffee and $6.35 on a large coffee with a gluten free homemade granola bar on my way home?
I thought about this hard for the next hour or two, pondering homelessness & its various aspects. What would $1 have really done for her? Was she even homeless, or perhaps some kind of scammer? Was she addicted to drugs? Why was she on the street? Where were her kids living & going to school? Were they eating? Would $10 or $100 or $1,000 have gotten her off the streets for good? Were those even her kids? What if instead of giving her money, I took her & her family into my own home for two months & provided them with food, clothes, & shelter free of charge so that she could clean up & get a job & a place to stay? Wouldn’t that be better than giving her $1? Or, would she squander the opportunity & be back on the street, jobless? I vowed to myself that this would not be the end of it for me. There had to be a better answer.
Later that night I was home, spending time with my family as usual. Over the weekend, the fever was gone. She didn’t cross my mind for awhile. What happened to the urgency I felt? It had disappeared rather quickly.
About a day or two later, I saw her again, in the very same spot. She didn’t seem to remember me or hate me as I thought she would. This time I had my wallet out before she got to my window. I had a bunch of singles & a few tens as well. I grabbed a ten dollar bill & handed it to her & said, “Good luck.”
She did in fact notice that it was a ten, and she smiled – a real smile, from ear to ear. “God Bless You, Thank you, Thank you!”
Now, I’m not made of money and I certainly can’t give $10 to every homeless person I cross paths with. (Or, can I?) I’ll never really know if that helped her buy crack or soup. Here’s what I do know:
It doesn’t matter what she did with the money. It only matters that I gave her what I could.