The other night I was pumping gas at the local Exxon station. As the 87 octane was flowing from pump to Honda Civic tank, in my proactive attempt to avoid the annoying television screen that pops on when you start filling, I stared off into the night. It was not long before I noticed a dark-haired woman of about 50 years of age foraging through a trashcan just a few feet from my car. This is not at all an abnormal occurrence, but, for whatever reason, I seemed to take extra strong notice of this activity on this evening.
As I watched the dumpster diving unfold, it appeared she was looking for recyclable goods, such as plastic containers and cans. I noted her shopping cart, left at the station entrance, was full of both these things as well as blankets and clothes, so it was pretty much a dead giveaway she would soon be off to the recycle bin. We caught a quick glimpse of each other as she looked me in the eye for a quick millisecond creating the briefest of gazes. Then, without the remotest hint of wanting anything from me, looked down in her continued quest for a few dollars’ worth of trade-in goods.
I was actually very impressed with this “apparently-but-who-knows” homeless woman. She did not have a dirty homeless look about her, rather a perhaps “recently homeless” look as if a homeless “newbie” or a woman on the verge homelessness. However, what impressed me about her was, during our millisecond gaze, having the greatest of opportunities to ask me for a handout and not doing so.
As the prepaid $24 worth of gas continued to pump, I realized what this woman was doing. In addition to perhaps providing the few dollars for a meal that evening, she was actually performing a public service. Her trash activity was making all our lives an environmentally better one. She was helping herself yet she was also indirectly helping you and me as well. I wanted to reward her so I reached in my wallet and took out a $20 bill. By this time the woman was on her third or fourth trashcan and now about 30 or 40 feet from my car.
I was thinking: What do I do? Should I approach her? Would this be insulting and demeaning? Dangerous? Is this a really bad idea? A really good idea? If I do approach her, what do I say?
I really just wanted to get in my car and drive off, though my impulse was strong on this cold and very rare, rainy Southern California night.
To better understand my inner conflict, know that I am very big believer in not enabling panhandlers and the like. When I see people giving money to street beggars and such, I am repulsed, as I believe providing money to those seeking handouts only perpetuates the problem and, in turn, creates a much larger one.
This anti-handout position in no way, shape or form applies to those wanting to provide some type of service for a handout -in which case it is no longer a handout rather a payment for services rendered. I will frequently drop a few bills in the tip jar of a street performer or give the guy at the red light a buck for washing my windows as I am stopped.
I also refuse to give because, well, I frankly believe many of those seeking handouts are compulsive liars and are not using the money for basic necessities.
Just a few weeks ago in the city of Redlands, CA, at another gas station (this time an Arco) a man came up to me and asked for some money for gas. I would normally just walk away, though, for whatever reason (am I changing?!?) I told him to pull up to the pump and I would fill his car up for him. He said that was not possible cause the car was several blocks away and he did not even have a gas can. He just wanted the cash.
I politely told him, “good day.”
Now at Exxon, I fought my instinct to drive away as I watched the woman continue to forage. I slowly began walking toward her, still not knowing if when I arrived I would follow through with my giving her the cash.
I was now a few feet from her,
“Excuse me, do you need some help?” I mustered the courage to ask.
She smiled and said yes.
I handed her the $20.
She smiled and said, “God bless you.”
That was about it. Not a lot more to write. Not a lot more to say. She accepted the money and I walked away and she continued in her recyclable endeavor.
However, I must say that, in addition to giving her the money making me feel really good, I realized how much I respected that woman: for both what she did do –recycle otherwise landfill refuse- as well as for what did she did not do –ask for a handout.
As a young teen, my mom once told me that there is never any shame in earning an honest dollar. Of course she told me this as she was getting ready to begin her afternoon cashier gig at the McDonald’s across the street from my high school. Pretty amazing words coming from a registered nurse who was taking some refresher courses to get ready to jump back in the nursing game.
I would take my dearly departed mom once step further…not only is there no shame, there is some mad respect. Deep mad respect. I love you mom.
And thank you woman. Thank you.
I was totally hung up on every word of this post. I know you prefer people to argue or debate with you when you look up the comment section of these things… but I got nothing.
So double win for you Jimmy. Double win.
Ha! (no, not your last name, rather Ha like lol). I guess, at the end of the day, is all about the W, huh? Thank you for your kind words Albert. Hope you are doing well. What have you been up to since London??
Working on my Masters toward med school. And doing it all in Australia. Love to travel and London was the ultimate excuse.
Where in Australia? I was just there in September. I am truly hoping one day you are my specialist. 🙂
Gold Coast in QLD.
I really like this story. It is a situation I believe most if not all of us has been in, recently. I’m usually a sucker for a sob story and my initial response is to give. I understand and agree that many seeking free handouts are compulsive liars and giving to them perpetuates the problem and makes it larger. Still the only thing that tempers my generosity is when I have my wife and kids with me. First I would not want to endanger them unnecessarily and secondly I don’t want them to follow my example to then endanger themselves when I am not around. There is an inherent danger, to believe there is absolutely zero chance of that would be foolish. My confidence (maybe over confidence) in myself makes me feel comfortable with dealing with the unknown maybe sudden danger of dealing with a stranger, specifically speaking here about a seemingly homeless stranger. I’ve found that the problem of the dishonest seeker of a free handout is self correcting. I’ll see the same person twice with the same sob story and call him out on it on the second time. “How do you keep forgetting your wallet at your girlfriends house and running out of gas here at this Arco, dude?” If not by me then by others; when someone was apparently setting me up for a emotionally charged solicitation for funds by first asking for a jump on their car’s dead battery, another kind (wise) stranger came from the sidelines with a battery tester to diagnose their battery for free and find out it is in good condition. I’ve been told that human behavior can be predictable and that human beings are dishonest. True and true, no disagreement from me there. First I asses my overall situation; am I safe? Past criminal history, past or present substance abuse all aside, I ask myself can I help them? Then I ask my should I help them? If the answer is Yes to all three, then I do. Sometimes after the fact I find out it was the wrong decision but that realization is usually traumatic enough for me to remember the face and voice of that specific person, some times even their name. Yet I don’t want to judge the next person based on that past experience. Freshly I ask myself those three questions. The answer is Yes to all three, I give. I just want to help and make a small difference if I can. Strangers have done the same for me in the past.
Thank you for your contribution Libni. Though you must realize as one of the nicest human beings on the planet you are a total outlier. I really respect your process and the questions you ask. I just find that by giving, in general, we are perpetuating an activity that serves no one well….not them, not us, not society. I believe panhandling can make potentially capable people lazy. That said, I believe the problem of “homelessness” (and I use quotes because I do not think the problem is a lack of homes, rather mental illness in many cases) is a huge and complex one. I really have no idea how to solve it. Though I do know I do not want to encourage it either. I once gave a man $27 in San Francisco because he did a stand up routine and sang a Jimmy Durante song for me…my point is I am not against giving in very unorthodox circumstances such as this one, rather it is the person who feels entitled to be given something in exchange for nothing is poison for the self and culture, IMHO. Thank you so much for your thoughts Libni…I am going to take your words to heart in my ever evolving thoughts on this important issue.
WOW. Thanks James !!!
No problem at all Donald. 🙂
I think it is something like fate (if you believe in that… I’m not sure where I stand on the matter but that’s besides the point) that my first taste of your blog would be on this particular subject. I don’t know where it stemmed from but when I was young I had a definite soft spot for people who were homeless or at least appeared to be so. I once made my mom buy an extra rice and bean cup so I could give it to a guy sitting outside of the restaurant because I thought he looked sad and dirty and my six-year old mind figured a rice and bean cup was going to make things better him. For the longest time I had “homeless packs” in my car that I could hand out in place of cash. They were just gallon ziplock bags that mostly consisted of snacks, mini soaps, razors, and mini towels. For so long I was so willing to help in whatever little ways I could because someone looked like they were in need. However, more recently I’m not seeing that same will to help in myself, it’s been replaced with some sort of frustration. I feel like I am constantly seeing the same faces giving their same sad stories all around town. They might truly need help, but they need so much more than a granola bar and a mini soap. And I’m not sure who/what I am frustrated at more, the “homeless” people for letting themselves go or the community that doesn’t help them before they get that low. I do realize that the situation changes from person to person and while some people are outright liars others do wholeheartedly need help. But that doesn’t make things any easier, how am I to know a conman from a homeless man in the sixty seconds before the light turns green and I’m driving away
Thanks Kai….just the fact you asking these questions means your heart is in the right place. I am not a fan of the term, “homeless” (though I do use it) as if homes were provided to these folks the problems would be solved…and I do not believe that is the case in most cases. They need so much more. The poor have always been among us and perhaps always will. It is enigmatic problem to which there is no easy solutions….but that will not stop me from trying.
This was a great story. I was enthralled with the tiniest details that you added to make the story more credible and more heart-felt (such as how the woman just gave you a quick glance at you with no hint of wanting to talk to you and ask for anything) and that added to the experience. I am also like you Professor, I am also a firm believer of never handing out cash to pan handlers. Back where I lived in the Philippines It is known that most of the beggars (mostly children) are ran by syndicates that exploit them to the general public to get a buck. That translated here too – I only offer food or clothing to pan handlers now just because of that fact. So when I read that you gave the woman 20$ and all she said was “God Bless You” was a sign that the woman never really asks for hand outs and are more into her faith about strangers helping her in her time of need. There is actually an “clean up” challenge going on right now where people take a before and after picture of themselves cleaning a certain area (you can look it up on google) and the movement is gaining ground in other countries such as India so It was interesting how she was recycling – these things can help our environment. I also applaud your mom – she was still working AND taking refresher courses for nursing. I can also relate to that and how my mom used to sell fish in fish markets just to make a living because nursing barely pays in the Philippines till she came here and made a life for us. Mom’s are great! Thank you for the post Professor!
Your outlook on life is amazing and a great example to others. I also share your similar beliefs on panhandlers and the homeless. Your story was truly inspirational. It really makes me look at others differently. I like that you compare and contrast the women with recycling, helping the environment. Your reference to your mother was emotionally heartfelt. I really admire how considerate and caring you were with that woman. You are so aware of other people and I really admire that.
Looking forward to reading more
I really enjoyed this piece, growing up in town full of panhandlers i live with a constant guilt. “why do I have but they don’t” is constantly running through my head when i see an extremely sad situation. I know i shouldn’t feel guilty for some of these pos, but the motion is there. The most I will do for beggars is buy them food if they are hungry, however 3 out 5 times they will try to return it for money of tell me to “F*** off”. I once gave a man with a “will work for food” sign a bag full of snacks; jerky chips, water, Gatorade. This was at my work, a co-worker came too get me and he dumped all the food on the ground. I worked for that food, not him. I lost a small bit of faith that day.
My Mother was also hard working, she worked 80- hour weeks sometimes, even taking me and my brother to work because it was just us. If someone really wants to work, there are jobs. I know the market can be step sometimes but those who can, will.
What a great story and I believe there are a lot of things you mentioned that everyone can at least feel some sort of similarities too. I am not a big fan of giving to panhandlers for many of the reasons you stated but I can remember in 2012, when I was just a preteen, seeing a veteran in a wheelchair who played the most beautiful swing style trumpet playing. I begged my mother for a drew dollars to spare. I very much so give you accolades with helping this woman as she is helping the community with her recycling.
This was beautifully wrote and I really appreciated the lovely dedication to your mother. I completely agree with the fact that panhandling is extremely annoying; however, how do you differ between when someone is lying and telling the truth when asking for help? Of course you can tell if an alcoholic or drug user is asking you for money where that money is going to go,but what about the young kids that don’t seem to be on drugs? What if a young person was kicked out of their parents house because of a dumb reason such as a disagreement with their family or even worse they got knocked up/knocked someone else up? Where do we draw the line?
All my best, Jamie
Thank you! My mom was amazing and would give anyone what she could…probably to a fault. You ask some really great questions. I suppose the only answers to your questions are found in the idea of using our personal power of discernment and discretion when confronted with a situation. To say panhandlers are either all truthful with integrity or liars would be unfair. Just like any walk of life, I am sure there are plenty of both. I am most definitely changing in this regard. I used to shut down all panhandlers immediately, though I am becoming more and more open to hearing them out and considering the veracity of their requests.
I really liked reading this blog because this is one of the questions we were asked to ask a partner in class on monday. I guess for me its definetly situational. If i can relate to the person and i can see that their trying to better their situation, i.e. just bad situations or maybe a veteran i usually try to give cause it can be rough. However my bullshit meter does go off and you can tell who is really down on yheir luck and which ones are using the miney to fuel drug addictions and such…very interesting topic to talk about. I could go on for hours. But ill try to keep it short lol.
From a young age I was taught if you see a need then meet the need I was also taught to very rarely give to those asking for handouts but similar to your experience I do give to those who don’t ask but you can tell they need it and be thankful for it. I do understand about how to approach people when giving them money and they’re not asking for one they could get really offend at your offer even though it wasn’t meant to be offensive. However, because I constantly give people the benefit of the doubt and believe they will use the money for something good its sad but mostly true that they won’t . I’m not repulsed by people asking for handouts but what really upsets me is when they have their kids with them on the side of the freeway with them with a sign that says something like “HELP TRYING TO FEED MY FAMILY” I feel if they want to stand at the end of an off ramp leave the kids out of it.