The Con Artist
This is the guy who is always “just $1 short of buying a train ticket or metro card, if you could please help out.”
When this guy asks for spare change, you don’t give him a single penny. The stench of alcohol in his breath, his profuse sweating, and the crazed, desperate look in his eyes give him away. You refuse to support his destructive habits.
This angry guy can be found screaming at people as they avert their gaze and avoid contact with him. You’re not sure what this dude’s diagnosis is and you’re not waiting around to find out.
You pass by this guy on your way home from work every day. Sometimes you give him a dollar or a banana. You trust him. (Meaning that you trust he’s not any of the 3 types listed above.)
He has perfected his elevator pitch – the 10 seconds he has to quickly share the top 5 saddest details of his life before people walk beyond earshot of his voice. Like a telemarketer on the phone, or a spammer sending junk to your inbox, he believes that if he can just get in as many people’s faces as possible, he’ll eventually find someone who will cave under the world’s most annoying marketing tactic.
This is the lucky guy who, for whatever reason, has pulled on your heart strings. Maybe it’s because of what his cardboard sign says. Maybe it’s because he reminds you of someone you love, or of yourself. You don’t see him as a lazy, crazy, smelly bum who made all the wrong choices life – you see a person who is a victim of poverty and hunger. You see a human.
Everyone has a heart for the homeless…until they become surrounded by it on a daily basis. That’s when you realize that there are 6 categories. It’s also when you notice that your feelings about how to help these individuals are much more complex than they were back when you rarely encountered them.
4 Stupid Words
It was 2 am as I walked the New York City streets alone one night about ten years ago. I was heading to my college dormitory when a homeless man approached me asking for money, and based on his demeanor I was fairly certain that he belonged to either category #2 (The Addict) or #3 (The Psycho).
Either way, he was not the “type” of homeless person I wanted to give money to.
Still, I didn’t have the heart to simply ignore him. After his final request for help, I turned around, looked him in the eyes and said:
“I’ll pray for you.”
And without missing a beat he answered, “I don’t need your f*cking prayers– I want a damn dollar.”
Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t have said it better himself.
I’ll pray for you. Hmm. It’s not the meanest thing to say to a person, but the irony of that statement haunts me to this day. Those words were all I could come up with in a moment of panic and indecision.
You see, while I did indeed pray for that nameless face as my head hit the pillow that night, I knew that my spiritualized concern for him served as a very comfortable buffer between us — it excused me from having to think critically or act purposefully when the opportunity for actionable Love presented itself.
The experience also made me think about how we are all less inclined to help out in a situation when we are afraid of being taken advantage of.
We make decisions based on the fear of being tricked or hurt. And in the end, we end up doing nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing.
After that incident I was determined never to be put in a situation where I’d be caught off guard again. I hated the idea of having to choose between compassion and self-protection…and then choosing the wrong one because I’d failed to think critically beforehand about how best to handle various situations.
A Few Ideas
For the rest of my time in college I began packing brown bag lunches and keeping them in my backpack as I walked to and from my classes, distributing them to homeless women and men. These days I’ll pop into a store to buy food for a homeless person sitting just outside of it, or I’ll give out my leftovers after leaving nice restaurants.
My husband Brian takes things a step further. He befriends the homeless. He shakes their hands, introduces himself, asks them about their lives, tells them about his, and then maybe gives them some money depending on what his intuition tells him. He surprises these men with his warmth. In fact, on more than one occasion Brian has put a dollar in someone’s cup and asked “What’s your name?” only to get an auto-response like “Thanks for your help, have a nice day.” Brian has to repeat his question a second time in order for these men to realize that he sees them as potential friends, not just beggars.
This Is Where The Balls Come In
None of what my husband and I do is by any means an answer to the global issues of poverty, greed, deeply flawed public education systems, inefficient social service programs, untreated mental illness, and other factors that to contribute to homelessness.
But for us, part of brave living is the unceasing mission to find good solutions to people’s suffering, followed by the search to find even better solutions.
And none of this is possible without difficult conversations in which you name your fears, acknowledge your biases, lay out your options, and choose what’s compassionate toward both yourself and the nameless face on that street corner.
Which reminds me…
It’s Your Turn: What are your experiences with ambivalence, fear or apathy with regard to social justice issues and charitable giving? What suggestions do you have for those who want to contribute in more significant ways?