Too jaded…

Before I got to college I was very sheltered.  Then, suddenly, I found myself in the middle of New York City at the age of 17 and I was exposed to things I’d never seen before.  Things like people trying to sell me drugs on my way home from class and sex shops located in between a bakery and a pet supply store.  But all of that was taken in stride.  The thing that really affected me was the homelessness.  I felt horrible for people living on the streets, begging for spare change, while I slept in a really nice apartment and got a top quality education that my parents paid for.  It didn’t seem fair to me. 

When I first started living in the city, I would make sure I had spare change and a few dollar bills before I left the house everyday.  On my walk to school or work or wherever I was going, I would hand that money out to the homeless people I passed.  Unfortunately, I learned that if you hand out money to every homeless person you see you are the one who will end up broke.  I also became less sensitive to people’s requests as I got used to seeing them every day. 

I stopped handing out money on my daily walk to school, but I would still occasionally hand over a few bucks here and there. 

I remember one day in particular…it was right before I was heading home for Christmas break.  My mom had asked me to make a trip to Bloomingdale’s for these chocolate covered apples that you can now get everywhere, but at the time could only get in Bloomies.  My parents were giving them out to people as holiday gifts and my mom had exhausted the supply in her local store.  Exams had just ended and I was tired and grumpy because I had to run this errand…all I wanted to do was get home and relax.  I was sitting on the subway with my bags around me and a miserable look on my face, when a woman entered the car and started singing Christmas carols.  She was clearly homeless and improperly dressed for the freezing weather.  But she was happily singing to everyone with a huge smile on her face.  Her spirit was infectious, and while I refrained from singing along with her, she definitely put me in a happier, more Christmas-y mood.  As she made her way over to me, I handed her $5 and one of the apples from my bag.  She thanked me, sang another song and moved along to the next car. 

Then there was another day where things turned out a bit differently.  I was walking to work at the gym and I was opening, so it was about 5:30 in the morning.  The street was empty and as I walked up to the door of the gym a man approached me.  He was pretty good-looking and very well dressed…and he seemed completely frantic.  He said…”I’m so sorry to bother you, but I live across the street and I just locked myself out of my apartment.  I have no wallet and no phone.  My mother lives up in the 80s and has spare keys for my place, but I don’t even have cab fare to get up there.  Is there any way you can help me out?  I swear I will return your money as soon as I get into my place.”  I didn’t carry my bag or my wallet with me when I opened the gym because the street was so deserted at that hour and I didn’t want to be a target for muggers.  But I did carry a few dollars with me so I could buy my lunch.  I felt bad for this frantic man, so I handed him the $7 I had in my pocket and he assured me that he’d stop back into the gym before lunch.  Sadly…I never saw my money again. 

The thing was…about 4 years later, I was in the same neighborhood, having dinner with a friend when the same good-looking, well dressed man approached us and gave us the exact same story.  I couldn’t believe it.  I let him go through his whole speech and then I explained that I’d helped him once before, was still waiting for my money back and since he had such bad luck with locking himself out, maybe he should start carrying extra keys with him.  He immediately turned and ran down the block. 

That’s when I made it a policy not to hand out money to people on the street…because you never know when you are getting scammed.

Last night, as I was walking up the block to catch my bus after work, a young guy approached me and asked if I spoke English and if I was from NY.  I figured he was going to ask me directions, so I stopped to speak to him.  He started in on this whole story about how he’d stopped someone who only spoke Spanish, then he’d tried a Chinese woman because he also spoke Chinese, but she wasn’t from here.  In my head I was thinking…come on, get on with it, I’m going to miss my bus!  Finally, he came out with it…he was from Westchester, but he’d been in the city all night and he was broke and hungry and could I help him. 

He continued talking, but I muttered that I was sorry, I couldn’t help and I practically ran down the street to catch my bus.  Normally, I don’t carry cash with me and I really wouldn’t have been able to help him, but last night I actually had a few dollars floating around in my purse that I could have parted with.  I just chose not to.  I guess I’m far too jaded, but I didn’t believe his story and I didn’t want to give him my money. 

Except, after I got on the bus, I felt terrible.  I wanted to run back and give him some cash.  Because what if he really was broke?  What if he really was hungry?  What if he really needed my help and I just walked away?  If that’s true and he really did need help, I hope he found someone nicer than me that was willing to help him.  And next time, I think I’ll take the extra minute or two to stop and listen when someone asks me for help.

Comments

  1. I am also extemely jaded when it comes to people asking me for money.
    We had a big problem here with the hobos getting very aggressive and threatening people and attacking them if they didn’t get any money. So the city started a campaign to not give money to the homeless, and to donate money to shelters and other organizations that help the homeless instead.
    I think that’s a pretty good alternative if you want to help but don’t want to get scammed.
    I have also bought food for someone instead of giving them money.

  2. Giving out the dough would not really have helped this guy. His problems are of considerably worse scope than those cured by five dollars. Do not feel guilty about it.

    Homeless shelters and charities are well-intentioned and provide some short-term help, but are not really a solution either.

    Solutions to homelessness in public policy are relatively expensive and require more political will than the USA is likely to muster any time soon.

  3. I certainly understand this and I, too, have become jaded by too many trips to Chicago, NYC, Atlanta, etc. We don’t so much have an issue in our small towns…you see the homeless, but they seldom ask for money. Usually, they just live in the parks and keep each other company. What I turn back to every time I walk away without giving any money/food/work…whatever it is that they are asking for…is that old thought that what if that was Jesus? “Disguised” as a homeless man. The Golden Rule, and all that. And then you juxtapose that with how we are raised in a capitalist society and actually try to move away from the idea of redistribution of wealth. We work very hard to make sure there is money in the bank, cars to drive, etc. But last spring I got a good glimpse at how easily it can all go south. When Neal lost his job, if we had emptied the baby account for a baby, we would not have had any savings to live on until the Army worked out. And really, that was just a stroke of luck. And then you have the vets returning from war who turn to drugs and alcohol to erase what they see in their nightmares every night and they have already been turned away by the VA. I’ve seen it happen. Heroes are on the street. The flip side is no one wants to be taken advantage of and no one wants to support the lifestyle of a scam artist. It’s so sad, but we HAVE to be jaded and try to provide information about the closest facility for those truly in need. But a previous commenter is right…that’s not the panacea, either. It’s a mess that is no high on the priority list with Afghanistan, Korea, and child obesity….

  4. I wish I had a good answer for this. I go through this struggle many days of my life. I am not in the big city often but when I am I sometimes feel the need to help. Mike is a huge giver he often offers money to strangers on the streets when we travel. I will admit I sometimes too.

    You are truly a giving person, and I don’t blame you for feeling jaded, everything happens for a reason. Maybe running back into that scammer was the worlds way of telling you that you do all that you can, and sometimes it’s ok to say No if you feel in your heart it’s the right thing to do.

    Giving to charity is how I’ve started to feel better about saying not to hand outs on the street. That way I know my money is going to a greater good, not just say another way to score drugs.

    It’s a tough, thin line indeed.

  5. When I was younger, I used to give my money to anyone that asked me. But after living in LA and being asked for money like three times a day, I never fork it over to people on the street anymore. It helps that I never have cash on me anyway, so most of the time I’m not lying when I say that I don’t have anything to give, but even if I do I still keep it.

    There are bums that work a corner near my office. They literally come in shifts and probably make more, tax-free, per hour than I do. They don’t need my help.

    • These homeless galaxians will hardly make panhandling as remunerative as being a graphic designer. However, they will do just fine if you refuse them. Nor should you fell guilty about doing so. Too many bums in one place gets kind of irritating.

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