Sunday, June 10, 2007

when people ask you for money, what do you do?

when i moved into the city from my small town of only 1000 people in michigan, one of the things i was confronted with that i never dealt with before was panhandling. no one had ever asked me for money on the street back home. we didn't have a lot of poverty, and those who were poor simply didn't ask for money from people they didn't know. now, in DC, i get asked for money on a nearly daily basis. it's a tough thing to deal with for me, because i'm a pretty shy person, and talking to random people whom i don't know on the street is just uncomfortable for me regardless. if they want something from me, it just makes me that much more uncomfortable. now, typing this out on the internet, and talking to potentially many, many people whom i don't know isn't a problem. the whole face to face thing makes a BIG difference, doesn't it?

anyway, i was outside enjoying the cool air tonight, and a guy walked up and asked if he could clean the truck in front of my place for some money. i told him it wasn't my truck (it's not, it belongs to someone a couple doors down), but i don't think he believed me. he finally said he was just hungry, and wanted some food. now, if someone asks me for money (see this), i'm apt to say no, and that's that. but i was raised to be a good christian, and to look out for those less fortunate than me. i'm not rich by anyone's definition of the word, but i'm not starving either, and that's what this guy told me he was (starving). so, i walked with him up to the chinese place next to windows cafe and bought him what he wanted (seven chicken wings with fried rice).

i've been out with my friend frank when he's bought dinner for someone in need, and i've seen people's eyes light up when someone takes the time to help them. i'd like to think i've done the same, but here's my problem. i still feel so uncomfortable dealing with someone asking for money. how do you say no to someone without feeling a touch guilty. i'm still not going to give someone cash so they can just go off and spend it on something destructive. but i don't want to be eaten up by guilt for being selfish either. am i being selfish/stingy for not helping people out, or am i being taken advantage of when i do? all questions that i think about....

14 comments:

Mari said...

Buying the starving man food whas the right thing. My problem with cash is that it can be used for other things. And with that in mind I don't feel bad when I give things like food or a metro ticket or a bus token, because I know that it probably won't be used for something destructive.
Also something else that you mentioned, time. Taking the time out to be kind to the less fortunate. Going and buying someone food takes more time than just reaching in your pocket and throwing some money at them. People know that time is valuable and it shows respect for that person when you give them your time as well as the food.

ed said...

I suggest giving to a charity that makes sure that help goes to deserving people. Frankly, most of the vagrants in our neighborhood (Shaw/Logan) are drunks, criminals, and drug users. The mentally ill need more help but the government isn't allowed to institutionalize people.

jen said...

that was nice of you, but you shouldn't feel guilty if you don't go buy someone food. i agree with ed, the better thing to do is to give money to a charity that serves that population. i donate to So Others Might Eat, but there are a number of good ones in the area. it is the good Christian thing to do in my opinion (even though i'm not Christian) - isn't there something in the Bible about "give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and that's a lot better?" or something like that. well, organizations like SOME provide all kinds of services to try to get people out of the bad situations they are in, in addition to just feeding them. mental health counseling, transitional housing, job counseling, stuff like that.

i disagree with mari's implication that it doesn't show respect for people to say "no" to them. (although i don't know if she meant to imply that.) you don't have to say "yes" or help a person to be respectful. if anything, i think it's patronizing (and therefore disrespectful) to act as if all the rules of life have changed just because this person has approached you on the street. there are a LOT LOT of people who need help in the world, and you don't help all of them. you couldn't even if you wanted to. the person who approaches you on the street is no more or less important than a single mom trying to get off welfare in detroit, just as an example. just because one asks for your help directly and one does not doesn't mean that all of a sudden you should feel (more) guilty about one or the other.

i think the thing about living in a big city is not that you necessarily become desensitized to other people's suffering (although to some extent you must), but that you realize that there is so much suffering in the world and that you can only do so much. so you do your best and learn to not sweat the rest, out of necessity. including not feeling guilty about just saying "no" to people who approach you on the street.

you also become more cynical about the realities of the situation... usually i just shake my head "no" and keep walking, but a couple of times a year i offer to buy someone food when they say they are hungry; for the record, i've only been taken up on that offer once. the rest all had some reason why they needed the cash.

(sorry for the very long comment!)

Ken and Belly said...

I struggle with this one, too, also, perhaps, because I'm from an area where out and out asking for money is considered, well, rude. I usually have a granola bar or two in my bag and have been glad to have them handy to give to someone on several occasions.

Eric said...

The key to not feeling guilty in these situations is what Jen said at the end of her comment. So many people, myself included, have offered food to a panhandler and had it turned down. It really desensitizes you and makes you cynical of everyone who asks you for money. The hard part is decifering who actually needs and wants help, and who just wants some change to buy drugs or alcohol.

Sarah said...

Something that I have started doing lately is that each time I go out to eat if there are any leftovers (that I am not going to take for lunch the next day) I ask for a box anyway. I know there is a 99% chance that between the time I walk out that door to the time I get to the place I'm going I will come in contact with at least one person asking for money. I'll admit, it did take a little courage to do the first time, but it is gratifying because they'll almost always take it. I also believe this is morally appropriate on another level as it eliminates the throwing away of food. Win-win!

Anonymous said...

I second what people have said about So Others Might Eat -- they are great. Also, check out Food for All.

I have a hard time navigating these situations, too, but for other reasons.

1. I am super friendly -- even to strangers -- normally. I look people in the eye, I say hello, if I see people standing around and looking confused (even people with fanny packs and FBI visors on), I stop and ask if I can help them. It's weird that when someone asks me for money this rapport with strangers totally changes.

2. As you can probably tell from 1., I'm from a small town in the midwest

3. One of the things that always made me feel like my dad was a hero when I was a kid is that when people on the street ask him for money, he always always gives them something, if he has anything. This is because when he was a little kid his mother told him that strangers who ask for help might be angels testing him. So, now, I'm left on the streets of DC staring at the homeless person who is asking for change, trying to decide if it's my dead grandmother I never met, testing me.

Well, if she was testing me, I wouldn't pass. And that sucks.

But, as a young woman in this city, there is no way I'm pulling out my wallet on the street. I've had friends be mugged, stabbed, followed home, etc., and I'm not taking that chance.

I've tried to deal with it by being kind as much as I can otherwise, and supporting organizations that are doing good, as well.

Pop Cultured said...

not giving him money shows leadership as bad as it may sound...you are willing to feed the man so that maybe he can help himself...don't ever feel bad for not being able to help more...what you did for that man was a blessing...

Anonymous said...

You'll probably feel less guilty after you get mugged. Have some common sense, okay?

The last time I was in DC, I was coming out of a supermarket, holding about a dollar or so in change in my hand. A man approached me, and asked me for money, and I reflexively handed him what I had in my hand. Then he wanted five dollars, and followed me to my car to make his case.

I told him I didn't have five dollars for him. He said that was okay, and he asked to shake my hand. At sundown, in an parking lot in a not-great part of Capitol Hill. I looked at him with a tired expression as he repeated his request for me to shake his hand.

My hands were filled with grocery bags, and I did my best apologetic refusal of his request. He backed up, spread his arms, and told me I was a good person and walked away.

I have no doubt that had I been so stupid as to shake his hand, I would have been pulled between the vehicles, mugged, or carjacked or worse.

Welcome to the big city. I suggest that you quickly get over your guilt that DC is unable to meet the needs of its residents before you become a victim to your naivete.

I had just returned from small town life, and it took that incident to remind me of the survival skills I had developed while growing up in DC.

Walk with confidence, be aware of your surroundings, never wear headphones or extremely high-heeled shoes, keep your cel phone quickly accessible, and by all means, DO NOT talk to people begging on the street AT ALL until you are aware of the risks involved in doing so.

And please take a basic self-defense course. It is not rude to run away from someone who makes you feel uncomfortable. Better to be rude than dead.

Your post is heartfelt and admirable, but my first concern, based on what you wrote is that you are at a high risk of being mugged.

Anonymous said...

1. I never give money. I'll give food or metrocards if I can spare them, but never money. If I'm at a luncheon reception, sometimes I'll snag the extra sandwiches (they're gonna be trashed anyway), wrap them up and hand them out to the homeless guys on my route home. When they ask for money, I just say "Sorry, man. I got a sandwich, you want that?" I've yet to have someone turn me down.

2. Support a charity that helps people in need. I support my church, which does a lot of outreach work, but if you're not religiously inclined, SOME is a great group.

3. Finally, when not giving money, just look the person in the eye and say "Sorry, man/sir/ma'am." More important than money is respect or at least the acknowledgement that this is a living person. If you watch how many people walk by the homeless without so much as lookin at them, it's disheartening. They are still people.

Anonymous said...

Come to NYC. You'll get over this ridiculous guilt in no time.

jess said...

I disagree that guilt is ridiculous -- yours is coming from a place of kindness, not condescension, the latter of which seems to me to be the only kind of truly wrong guilt.

I don't always have money to give, and when I don't I just try to genuinely say I'm sorry.

A boyfriend I had a long time ago -- his dad was a millionaire who rode the subway in NYC. He kept loads of coins in his pockets from the cash he spent to give away.

I'm not sure if that helps, but perhaps it will allow you to give something immediately when you don't have the time or ability to give more?

IMGoph said...

to the anonymous poster at 3:13 pm (and please, can everyone use names or at least pseudonyms, it makes it easier to reply):

i'm going to go way out on a limb and say that i'm not a high risk of getting mugged. i don't know how well you know DC, but i spend a fair amount of time in some of the higher crime areas of town, and i'm pretty good and keeping my wits about me and knowing when i'm in a bad place. i appreciate your concern on that matter, but i think i'll be ok.

and one other thing...i don't think i have to worry about the high-heels thing :)

Anonymous said...

i get the same problem