I rarely give money to individuals on the street. I know, that makes me sound like a terrible person. I just never feel comfortable doing so. How much of an impact can I even have? My actions won’t solve hunger and homelessness. We live in a society where the system makes it really difficult to get out of the cycle of living at or below the poverty line.
I grew up in a family that sincerely believes in giving; they often do so for homeless individuals that they encounter as well. Sometimes, I carry food with me, in the event I run into someone who doesn’t know where their next meal will come from. I’ve offered fruit instead of money to panhandlers. I distinctly remember crossing paths with a young blonde woman on the Smithfield Bridge, which crosses over the Monongahela River and connects the South Side with Downtown Pittsburgh. I also remember meeting a veteran in the Cultural District near my old workplace. Both accepted the fruit I gave them graciously. The gentleman continued to thank me repeatedly as I continued on to work. But still, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to help.
Ultimately, it crushes me when I have very little to give. I wish I could do more to help those I cross paths with.
Yet, this past weekend, something was telling me to do otherwise. On Sunday, I made plans to attend church services, have lunch, pick up groceries, and head home for a quiet, relaxing afternoon. It was a chilly day in Northern Virginia, a bit overcast, but not as dreary as it had been during Winter Storm Jonas.
After mass, I took the bus to Northside Social, a coffee shop and cafe in Arlington. I love the ambiance of the place — people bustling about, chatting over coffee, silently studying, or doing work on their laptops. The place was quite busy with customers shuffling into line for a quick bite or a warm beverage. I ordered some food and herbal tea, parked myself at a table, and spent the next couple of hours reading and writing (yes, with a pen and paper!).
The next item of the day was to purchase groceries for the week before heading home. I found myself yawning, but something was pulling me to stay out a bit longer. So, I walked over to a bookstore for some afternoon book-browsing. I ended up staying there for almost an hour, all the while, I fought the urge to just head back to my apartment to take a nap. I continued to peruse books to read their back covers, hoping to find a worthy book to take home.
Eventually, I walked out of the bookstore and made my way to the grocery store. On my way there, I saw a man in his late thirties, with his head hung low, sitting near the intersection of two major streets. He wore a dark jacket and a backpack. In front of him was a case of water bottles, and a cardboard sign explaining his financial situation. He was having a hard time putting food on the table for his two young sons. So, he was selling water for $1 a bottle. My heart sank with sadness, but my mind went to its automatic response:
No, you don’t give money to panhandlers. You can’t fix anything about this person’s situation.
I continued on my way to the grocery. Once I got there, I noticed the long line to the register. Since this was the last item on my to-do list for the day, I marched on in, picked up what I needed, and got in line. During the thirty minute wait, I couldn’t stop thinking about the gentleman I passed by outside. I reasoned that this time, I would go back out and see if he was still there. If so, I was going to give him some money to help him out.
As I slung my grocery bags over my arms, I glanced at the bus stop outside. My bus was arriving and loading passengers. I thought for a split second about racing after the bus to catch my ride home. Instead, I turned the corner and headed back toward the intersection where I saw the man with the sign and water bottles.
I approached him and he avoided eye contact with me, turning his head away from where I walked. I set my bag down next to him to grab my wallet and I pulled out a twenty dollar bill. As I was about to hand it to him, a woman approached us with twenty dollar bill as well. She handed it to him, urged him to keep the water bottle, and walked away.
The gentleman then turned to me, this time making eye contact. He accepted the twenty dollar bill. There was slight hesitation in his voice:
“Wow, I don’t know how to thank you,” he said.
“Not to worry,” I responded with a smile.
His eyes were filled with complete sorrow. I wanted to break the ice a bit, so I asked him for his name and introduced myself as well.
Paul lived nearby with his two sons, and he said that it had been really hard as of late. I told him I had seen him on my way to buy groceries, and returned to see if I could help him out. He noted that he initially came to the area in hopes of getting some groceries as well. After I politely declined a water bottle, I assured him that he could keep it. I then apologized for not being able to help more and told him to take care of himself. He nodded. As I walked away and headed for the bus stop, tears ran down my face. I didn’t feel any happier, nor did I feel sadness. I didn’t feel guilt, nor did I feel relief for trying to help. I felt human. And as a human, I had connected with another human.
It could have been fate or a higher power, but I had been fighting the desire to go home all afternoon for a reason. I just didn’t realize what that reason was until then: to meet Paul.
The people seen on the streets don’t want our pity. If anything, they want to be treated with dignity. So while it may not always be within me to give money or food, it’s important to me that I acknowledge their presence. They are people, too.
It’s impossible to expect ourselves to help everyone. But when we can help, it is important that we do. When we have an opportunity to give, it is my greatest hope that we, as human beings, take that opportunity.
If you’re faced with a similar situation, and are deciding between whether or not you can help someone in need, I challenge you to do the following:
Ask the individual for their name. Who knows how long it has been since someone has done so? Next, ask how you can help, be it by offering to pick something up for them at a nearby store or grocery, or giving money if you feel comfortable. Above all, treat them with respect. Strive to discover how you can help those in need around you, especially if you have the agency to do so.