Homelessness in my southern California community has weighed heavily on me for a couple of years now because of what appears to be a great increase in the numbers of people sleeping on benches, loitering at Starbucks, cruising the streets on bikes towing a makeshift trailer, or pushing a grocery cart full of all their worldly possessions, often including a dog either for companionship (Chihuahua) or protection (Pit Bull).
Sometimes groups of homeless gather at a prominent corner to commiserate their state of affairs. At least that’s what I imagine they are doing. Talking about their shared experience. I’ve been told that the homeless tend to be possessive of their meager belongings, willing to fight off anyone who threatens to steal them.
Likewise, they are aggressive in their attmpts to gain basic needs–blankets, food, clothing. And anyone fortunate enough to be in possesion of a large cardboard box, previously the housing for a refrigerator, is likely to have to fight off a fellow homeless person coveting their prize.
The truth is I have been on the threshold of homelessness myself, and it’s a scary situation. Really scary. So, I may be more sympathetic than the average Good Samaritan.
My sympathies for the homeless among us had kept me on the fence about whether or not to give them some money (or something to eat) or not. Proponents of withholding help argue that giving freely reinforces an entitlement mentality, doesn’t incite them to get out of their rut.
A recent series of interchanges with homeless men has moved me off the fence and into the camp of those who say, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
The first in the series of encounters occurred when I parked in a strip mall parking lot, intending to get some lunch at Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. I was approached, even before completely exiting my car, by a young man in tattered clothing covered in filth, with straggly hair and beard.
“Ma’am, could you spare some change?”
“No, I use plastic. But I’ll buy you something to eat. I’m going in to Yoshinoya,” I said cheerfully.
“I’m vegetarian. I was going to go to a place where I could get a veggie burger,” was his reply.
Now, I was really feeling charitable since for once in a very long time I could spare a few bucks for someone less fortunate than myself. So, I persisted, “Yoshinoya has veggie and rice bowls. You don’t have to have meat.”
“I don’t like their food,” he said. Oh, I thought, I to help a fellow with a meal and he’s turning me down. Strange.
Later, while dining on rice and teriyaki chicken, I saw him rummaging through a garbage can outside of Yoshinoya. Humph. Suit yourself, I guess.
The next encounter with a hungry, homeless young man happened outside a Starbucks. He was sitting with his extremely large puppy, a black and white mixed breed with gigantic paws.
“Ma’am? Could you spare some change?” Same line as the last guy.
“No, but I’ll be glad to buy you something to eat. I’ll run down to McDonald’s.”
“I don’t really like their food.” Here we go again. “But, of course I’d be grateful for anything.” That’s more like it.
“And a couple of burgers for my pooch, please.” He’s thinking there’s no way she can resist Buster’s hopeful look. I couldn’t. I bought the dog a couple of burgers, all the while thinking this homeless kid should really learn to live within his means.
The third experience I was at a gas station, needing to fill up, and needing even more, to wash my windshield. Lo and behold there was a poverty stricken man across the parking lot with a squeegee in hand. To my surprise, he did not approach. But another, looking equally poor, did approach me.
“Ma’am, could you spare some change, or maybe buy me a doughnut or somethin’?” This time, I was feeling less charitable and more curious about how this would play out. I bet he offers to wash my windshield when he sees me go for the scrubber.
“Sure. Just a minute,” I said, scrubber in hand. Wait for it. Wait . . . for . . . it. Hmm. No offer to ‘work for food.’ Instead, he plopped his dirty, but able bodied self on the island dividing the lanes between gasoline pumps. Really? What about WWFF, “Will Work for Food?” Have all y’all become entirely without even a drop of work ethic? C’mon, there might be a 10 dollar bill in it for ya.
My charitable inclination diminished then and there. I gave him 50 cents.
The final encounter occurred again at a Starbucks. A pitiful young man explained that his wife and he would be grateful for a cup of coffee. I reasoned, It’s chilly outside where they are restricted. Coffee is a modest request. Here is my opportunity to give a little. How much could a couple of cups of coffee set me back? Not much. The least I can do is see to it they have a beverage to warm them up.
“Okay,” I said, feeling that this man would redeem all homeless. He would gratefully accept a small token of my charitable nature: a simple cup of coffee which I can afford to provide. Win/win.
“We’ll have two Venti blended Caramel Macchiatos with extra whip,” he said.
“Oh! Get outta here with your greedy self.” That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I controlled my reaction, and said, “I’ll buy one Venti for you and your wife to share. They’re pretty big.” Sheesh. My esteem for the down-and-out was beginning to evaporate. Venti Caramel Macchiato, indeed!
Since the last of these situations, I have become a believer in supporting organizations working to help the homeless help themselves. I’m working three jobs to make ends meet, but still find opportunities to donate clothing and toiletries to shelters, and I gladly pay to have my windshield washed . . . if anyone does that kind of job still.
by T.M. Burroughs