I broke a cardinal rule today. I gave a homeless man a dollar. OK, I know, that sounds a bit insensitive, but there is a good reason why I don’t give homeless people money. Well, actually, there are several reasons, good ones as far as I am concerned, not by some people’s standards perhaps, but my reasons none-the-less. I work in the heart of downtown Sacramento. One doesn’t have to dig too far back in news story archives to discover that Sacramento has a homeless problem and its a biggie. The population of homeless nearly doubled with the mortgage meltdown started a chain reaction that sent property values plummeting close to 33% forcing countless families out on the street. The point that I am trying to make is that I have seen the same homeless people every day for the past four years when I go to lunch, take a break and walk to the State Capitol to stroll in the park. If I were to succumb to each and every request for money I would be right there next to them in just a few months time. So, my cardinal rule is to not honor 3 to 5 requests for cash that I get five days a week.
I would just as soon take them into a deli and buy them a meal, and I have done just that on occasion.
Today, while leaving my office to catch my bus, I spied a guy whom I have never seen before sitting on a large duffel bag with various personal belongings scattered around his immediate vicinity. As I passed he said “excuse me, but could you possibly spare some change?” I went into automatic mode and gave my customary response: “Sorry, I have no cash” and continued walking. I got a few feet away and, as I have been known to do on very few occasions if I feel that the person has a genuine need and won’t make a bee-line for the liquor store before the coinage has settled into his palm, I turned around, pulled out my wallet and handed him a dollar. I thought, hey, I have never seen this guy before and he looks to be really down on his luck. Just as he closed his fingers around the bill, he said in a sarcastic tone: “wow, a dollar. Thanks man.” and turned his head away from me as I stood before him. I couldn’t believe my ears. That ungrateful bastard I thought to myself as I walked away, feeling like my compassion had just been stomped on. “That settles it, that’s the last time I do that.” I said out-loud as I continued my journey to my bus stop, hoping that my audible proclamations were not misinterpreted as the mindless ranting babble of the street population that had just lowered my compassion level.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very compassionate for the homeless population in Sacramento and everywhere in this country. No one, I mean NO ONE should be without a safe place to sleep and have enough food to eat. But if you’re putting yourself in the position to ask people to help you out with a donation of cash, food, clothing, or whatever, be genuinely grateful, because when you’re not, you’re taking food out of the mouths of those who are truly appreciative of any help that they can get.
Which reminds me of another similar instance in which a few people in my office commented one day about a homeless man who they have seen rummaging in trash cans near the office looking for recyclable. He asked the same thing as he passed: “can you spare a quarter?” I don’t know what he thought he could get for a quarter, but he was probably trying to sound as though he wasn’t asking for much, prompting compassionate folks on the street to give him more. After all, all he’s asking for is a quarter, right. why not give him a buck, or even five?
So, these few employees also commented that this guy was walking around in a pair of corduroy pants that were torn from his feet all the way up the back of each thigh, the rip disappearing underneath the back of a ragged flannel shirt that he always wore. Taking note of this, the three of us gathered up some clothing to give to him the next time that we saw him so that he could at least have some real pants to wear and some shoes on his feet as it was winter time when the topic of him came up. When all was said and done we had gathered up socks, pants, shoes, and a nice warm jacket. We stored some of this stuff under a chair in my cubicle and the larger items in my car with the plan to pull him aside and give him this gift of compassion the next time we saw him
A few weeks went by and while on a break I finally saw him again. He was going through a trash can in front of the Cathedral, pants ripped even ruther up his legs, bare feet black from walking for months without shoes. I approached him and he gave his customary spiel: “Can you help me out with a quarter?” he said. I returned with my automatic response: “sorry, I have no cash, but some co-workers put in a collection of some clothes for you. we have pants, shoes, socks and a nice warm coat.” I said. His response was brief, and to the point. “No, that’s OK. I’m alright.” He then turned and walked to K street to the next trash can, raising his head briefly to mouth his perpetual query to the next person who would listen: “can you help me out with a quarter?”
On my way home from work that day I stopped at the local Goodwill store and donated all of the clothing that I had gathered up specifically for this man. A donation of shoes and socks still sit in a bag under a side chair in my cubicle.