Thursday, February 08, 2007

Last week I was driving to meet some friends for lunch. As I got off the highway there was a man there with a sign. I can't remember exactly what the sign said, but it was something along the lines of, "Will work for food." I immediately dismissed him as a scammer.

But then as I was driving by I started to rethink my initial dismissal and I began wondering when I became so cynical. My husband and I visited my family a few years ago. We were in t he parking lot of a Wal-Mart when a lady stopped my father, my husband, and I. I can't remember what she said exactly (see a trend here?), but it could have been that her car was broken down and she didn't have any way to get her and her children home or they were living out of their car and didn't have money for food. My father reached into his pocket and gave her money. I don't know how much.

At the time I was a little angry, thinking that my father was being taken advantage of. I found the lady's story unbelievable. I think about it now and I wonder if I even really listened. I usually tune people out immediately in situations like this.

I think it started when I was living in San Diego. I remember getting the same line from people begging on the same night three times in a row walking home from a restaurant. It made me feel justified in my refusal of help. They're all just scam-artists right?

But as I started thinking about it last week I started thinking about it differently. I thought about my dad giving that lady money. I'm sure he probably thought that she might not be telling the truth. But he didn't really know and he boiled it down to a person needing help, asking for his help. And so he helped.

If I had given that man $20 that day I wouldn't have noticed the missing money. And even if he wasn't really bad off for money or was planning to use it for alcohol or drugs, my intentions would have still been good. I've cut myself off from helping people except in the most sanitized, impersonal of ways. I'll give to charities that I find respectable. But I rarely do anything myself when I see people like this man.

I still used the excuse that I was running late and didn't have time to stop at an ATM -- I rarely carry cash. And I still wonder how much of my judgment is right and how much was built up over bias, or how much I justify to myself in order to feel good.

But I still think it's better to give the benefit of the doubt and help when I can than to dismiss people because I would rather not.

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5 comments: to “ charity

  • Brian
    Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 6:40:00 PM CST  

    I'm a little wary of people who come up to me with a pat story like that. Chances are they are scamming for money to buy booze or drugs.

    When I was a teenager, I used to feel sorry for the bums begging on the street, but I didn't want to give them money for drink, so I bought some gift certificates for a free sandwich at a restaurant and handed them out. I saw the guy about half an hour later trying to sell his coupon to passerby outside the restaurant.

    Another time, I was with a friend having lunch at a fast food place and this guy came in saying that he had run out of money. He claimed that he hadn't eaten in days and needed some money to buy food. My friend replied that she never gave money to strangers, but that she would buy him anything he wanted to eat from the menu. He turned her down flat and made up some excuse about food allergies.

    Sad that he was so obsessed with alcohol that he would turn down a free meal.

  • PBS
    Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 9:05:00 PM CST  

    I think your idea of charity is wonderful! It's so easy to judge other people when we don't really know what it's like to have to walk in their shoes.

  • Venjanz
    Friday, February 9, 2007 at 6:40:00 PM CST  

    I will usually give them money, but I won't go out of my way to do so. I know most of them are drug addicts and alcoholics, but they need to eat too. I would much rather give away my money by my own will, than have the government jack park of my check every week for social programs.

  • L
    Sunday, February 11, 2007 at 3:35:00 PM CST  

    it's such a complex problem... my city is currently having a real issue with it... unfortunately, it reaquires a complex, multifaceted solution since there is no one type of homeless person (they run the gamut from young families to the mentally ill) and there are different reasons why a person might be homeless. I typically don't give $ to people who ask unless they seem nonthreatening, but do donate $ to various charities that help the homeless. I think it's true that you can't judge....

    nice thoughtful post :)

  • Sylvene
    Wednesday, February 21, 2007 at 5:48:00 PM CST  

    It's sad that you can't tell which really need the help and which are just scammers.


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