On Panhandling, and Homelessness
I’ve often wrestled with the conflict of how to deal with the person on the street who asks me for money.
I ask myself, “Should I give this fellow the dime, or the dollar, that he’s asking for? Will he use it for alcohol or drugs? Or is this person genuinely in need of food and coffee? Is the person homeless, or just in a low ebb?
For most of my life, I’ve chosen between one of two courses of action, both of which left me feeling uneasy.
I’d either say “No, I haven’t any change,” because I didn’t want to interact with the person, or, I’d toss some change at the person, paying him off, as it were, so I would be left alone. Oh, there was a third option too – just ignore the person.
An experience of mine showed me that there is another way, a more humane way, of dealing with our fellow man (or woman).
I was with several friends tending to some business in downtown L.A., a few days before Christmas. We stopped to have dinner at Phillipe’s, across the street from Olvera Street and Grand Central Station.
As we were departing the restaurant, a man who’d been standing just outside the door asked one of my friends if he could have some change for a sandwich.
My friend, Vernon, asked the stranger his name.
“My name is William,” the man replied, somewhat suspiciously.
Vernon then simply asked the man what kind of sandwich he wanted.
“Ham!,” William immediately responded. Vernon then asked one of our group to go back into the restaurant and buy William a ham sandwich. William wanted to wait outside, but Vernon insisted that we all go inside together. Vernon then sat William down at one of the stools at Phillipe’s, and served him a ham sandwich, pickles, and a cup of coffee (black).
Needless to say, the rest of us were a bit taken aback, but since Vernon was our teacher, we respectfully kept quiet.
Vernon then talked with William, learning that William was currently unemployed, lived alone in a small nearby apartment, and was in his late 40s. William spoke openly about this situation as he savored his sandwich. William was dressed modestly, with clothes that were by no means new, and a bit scuffed. But he was by no means a “bum,” even though one might think otherwise by looking at him.
Vernon told William – and it was the first time I’d heard this – that he (Vernon) had been in a similar situation several years earlier. Thanks to the goodwill of total strangers who took Vernon in until he “got back on his feet,” Vernon was able to re-enter the work force and “become a productive asset to society.” William stopped chewing and looked at Vernon when he said that. “That meant I was able to pay my bills,” said Vernon, laughing. William and the rest of us laughed too.
William was highly and openly appreciative. He loudly proclaimed as we took our leave, “It’s good to know there are still humans out there.”
During our drive home – we had all come in one vehicle – we discussed what Vernon had done. To me, I had just witnessed a revelatory “better way” of dealing with my fellow man.
Since then, I’ve put this into practice on many occasions. In some instances, the individual refused my offer of food because he wanted to buy alcohol. But overall, following Vernon’s example has provided me with uplifting interactions with people I’d previously remained blind to. One man actually told me that I was the first person who talked to him in two weeks! He’d seen people, and people gave him money, but no one else actually took a moment to talk to him.
In those cases where I was aggressively asked for money, I would refuse or walk away. I was repelled by the notion that I owed the person something, because they were down on their luck. Years later, when I experienced a period of homelessness, I kept this in mind, that my attitude can be a major factor in whether or not someone will choose to get involved with me in solving my problem. For example, among other things, I learned to always lead with an offer when I was in need, and I learned to find how I could benefit the person from whom I was seeking aid.
Of course, none of this is a long-term solution to homelessness, or poverty, but it is a step in the right direction. I believe that most people are more than willing to help others if they are approached with humility and honesty.