Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor – But Then What?

A post over at My Wildlife’s Words  got me thinking. My grandfather used to volunteer much of his time at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. But he never gave money, outright, to someone who was panhandling. I asked him why. And he said to me, “Because you never know if they’re going to do the right thing with it. Before you can help them they need to know how to help themselves.” He always did a litmus test with people begging for change. He’d tell them no, but if they wanted he would buy them a bowl of soup. If they took him up on the offer of a bowl of soup he’d buy them a meal, give them information on where he volunteered and often slipped them more money. If they turned him down he knew they weren’t ready to be helped.

But in my younger days I still gave them money any time they asked. And naive little me, visiting the Detroit Art Institute was approached by a gentleman who had run out of gas. Please? he pleaded, My wife and kids are sitting in the car. We just need enough gas to get home. I handed him a 5 dollar bill. He thanked me and approached another couple with the same story. I just assumed that he need more than $5 in gas to get home. We toured the gallery and walked to a nearby place for lunch. Crossing the street I see the desperate gentleman I had been approached by earlier, sitting with this buddy, drinking something out of a brown paper bag. I’d been had.

So I became jaded. I refused anyone who approached me for money. I wasn’t about to do my grandfather’s litmus test. Me? A lone female taking strange men or women to lunch? But I volunteered at our local homeless shelter, serving lunch a few times a month. I donated to causes that meant something to me.

I remember one particular Thanksgiving my sisters and I all met at my parent’s house in Louisville. My sister and I had to run out to the store. On our way, in an abandoned parking lot was an old station wagon. The back was made into a makeshift sleeping loft. Clothes and personal belongings were heaped in garbage bags. A woman dressed in tattered clothing sat outside her car with a sign begging for money. No work, she claimed. They lost their home. Trying to make it back home to California. Two children, in equally tattered clothing sat beside her. My sister cried, “Stop! We need to help them.” I kept driving and told her, no.  She was annoyed. And in the grocery store she grabbed her own cart and filled it with food. She insisted on stopping on our way home to give them the food. The woman tried to look grateful but told my sister what they really needed was money. Embarrassed, my sister reached into her purse and handed her a twenty. She tried again to leave the food but the woman refused. Puzzled, my sister got back in the car and we drove home in silence.

Later that night, on the evening news, was a story about that very woman. Evidently, a reporter followed her “home.” She used her electric garage door opener to shuttle her car away to safety. And then, presumably, entered her home. A very nice home. A very nice neighborhood. Homes with 3 car garages. Manicured lawns. When the reporter tried to interview her the door was slammed in his face. But of course, he had more information. It was estimated that she scammed $30,000 a year. Her husband was gainfully employed. She was well-known for several haunts, using different stories and signs.  And she used her children in this scam especially around the holiday season.

While visiting Savannah recently we were in a very nice specialty food store. They had gourmet jams and jellies. Wine and sweets. They also had a deli with hot and cold food. A man approached me and my son. He asked for money for some food. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to teach my child about helping someone in need. My husband was close by. There were plenty of people in the store and I could use my grandfather’s litmus test and feel safe using it if the man took me up on my offer to buy him a meal. He did take me up on my offer. We approached the counter so he could tell the server what he wanted. The server refused. I told him, No. This is my friend and I’m buying him a meal. The server still refused and told me panhandling is illegal. I told him I offered to buy him a meal. Reluctantly, he gave the man the food and I paid for it. But then he sternly told the panhandler to leave the store and never come back. And then sternly told me it was against the law to give money to panhandlers. There was a stiff fine and it was posted all over the city. I guess if they discouraged people from giving money to panhandlers they would leave and try elsewhere. So much for the lesson for my son. It turned into a big lesson for me.

Help or not to help? And who is it helping? I worked in the employment industry for a short time. Couple that experience with any of the charity work I’ve done I’ve learned there are people who want to help themselves and a “handout” will tide them over until they can make it on their own. And I’ve learned there are others that simply want the handout. Many people who need the help don’t know it exists. This country is a country of enablers. We want to reach out to others (Give me your tired, your poor). But we need to do a better job of making sure that the people who need it know where to find help. Most of all, we need to help create a society that doesn’t expect or rely on handouts to get by.

19 Comments

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19 responses to “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor – But Then What?

  1. angelcel

    Jane I love what you write because it is always thought provoking. Your grandfather’s litmus test is a very clever one because that is genuinely helping someone and avoids falling into the trap of helping someone who doesn’t actually need it. I have come across quite an infamous scammer in SW England and his actions still make me angry to this day because they hurt both those who need help and those who are kind enough to give.

    Ah yes, getting the balance right to support those who genuinely need our help is difficult. Experience over here in the UK shows that if handouts are given too readily there is no longer that imperative to help oneself and the help becomes regarded as a ‘right’.

  2. You’re right–it’s a sticky issue and you feel so angry when you help someone and then get burned.

    I give money to the bell ringers at holidays and donate to the food banks…but somehow that seems like so very little.

  3. Hmmm, this is such a thought provoking post. You’re so right; I really admire your grandfather. How can we know how to help people. It’s terrible to know our good intentions are really people scamming us. I want my kids to be generous, but not to be had. Growing up around NYC, our parents taught us not to give money to panhandlers. We learned to step right over a drunk on the sidewalk. It sounds cruel, but this was Manhattan in the 70’s. Yet my parents are generous and I grew up learning to volunteer and give to charity. It’s hard. Great post. And have I told you I love your holiday header?

  4. Joe

    Great post, as usual. Living in Boston, there are the same panhandlers at the same spots everyday. Some look depressed, some are really funny and friendly. But I try to never give them money, as I, too, have always been skeptical as to what they’re using the money for. It’s terribly sad that we have so much homelessness and poverty in this country, but giving money directly to these people is a hard thing for me to do.

  5. Using her kids?!?! Unbelievable!

    I’ve been scammed, too. My city has these little coupon things that you can purchase and give to people that will get them a free meal at a variety of places.

  6. I’m afraid I have become jaded, too, but also wiser. It breaks my heart to hear of all the scams targeting the elderly. The agencies that DO offer genuine help are really hurting now. My donations go to them.

    Door-to-door and phone solicitations and salespeople don’t get very far with me either unless it’s one of the neighborhood children.

    Gosh, I sound like Mrs. Scrooge! You’re going to toss me from the neighborhood!

  7. Steven Harris

    When I was busking I always used to think that those who begged, particularly those who accosted people and were quite aggressive about asking for money, ought to learn to play the mouth organ, or the Jaw’s Harp or something. At least I’m earning any money I get, I told myself. After a while I realised I was being quite arrogant and it wasn’t their fault if they couldn’t play an instrument. One day, when I’d had a really good morning bsuking, I popped a couple of pounds in the hat of a beggar who had moved further up the road when he’d seen me coming to busk. “Oh you shouldn’t do that,” he said. “You’re working for it, I’m only going to spend it on drugs.” There wasn’t a lot to say to that, but at least he was honest.

  8. Steven Harris

    Oh, and if anyone refuses food while they are busking or begging, then you know they’re more likely than not to be raising the cash for their addictions. Not always but a starving person wouldn’t refuse food, would they?

  9. Such a good good post.

    The scams are sad. We have several people who are always downtown…and they always use the “gas-get-me-home-story”. We know who they are, and I do not give to them.

    I have often been approached while coming out of a resturant with my leftovers in a carry-out box. I offer to hand it over. Some deny it so I walk away. One time, a younger man snatched-it and WOLFED down the 1/2 sandwich.

    I REALLY think I would have LOVED your grandfather.

    There is not an easy answer, especially with the high rate of mental illness in the homeless population. Thanks for taking this thought further.

  10. It’s hard to know when “help” is actually helping and when it’s enabling…true with many things and areas in life…like “helping” my 5 year old wipe his but or put on his shoes…

  11. What a great post and a topic I think about a lot (we have a lot of homeless people in Philly!). I use to work in mental health and also have volunteered in our soup kitchens. This is why I do not give money either. And yet from experience I also know that most of those folks are on the streets due to an addition or mental illness which is why I am always so torn, wanting to help in any way. I believe it is beyond some of them and that they really don’t know how to help themselves. It saddens me and maddens me at the same time.

    Your grandfather was a very wise man!

  12. I got scammed by a version of the need-gas thing, except it was way more elaborate and sophisticated. I still felt like a chump. My sister says there is a special place in hell for people who do that sort of crap (that woman? some people have freaking nerve, you know?). But the woman at the food counter who yelled at you for helping someone — she’s no prize either. It’s so hard to know what’s right. I would rather err on the side of helping too much than not enough, but creating a culture of entitlement doesn’t work either.

  13. Your grandfather was a wise man!
    I’m a cop’s daughter, so I’m pretty cynical. My dad knew all the panhandlers and where they really lived. He used to pick up bums and drop them off outside of the city. Yet one year he worked the security for the opening spring training game, and there were two HUGE boxes of hot dogs left, which they gave to my dad. After feeling our freezer, he spent the afternoon reheating all those dogs. He loaded the car with the hot dogs, mustard and ketchup packets, and us kids. He drove to where the homeless hung out in a park. He left us kids, locked in the car, as he handed out the hot dogs.
    I think it’s most important to give to good charities who know how to help people, especially now when there is so little to give and so many who need help.

  14. unabridgedgirl

    Wonderfully, beautifully, perfectly well put. When I donate money, I usually donate it to my church – – I know, this way, it goes to certain charity and causes for people in need. I always feel more comfortable giving money to charities and help-houses, because I know where it’s going.

    At the same time – – I have given money to people I didn’t know if they were or were not pan-handlers. In the end, I figured I still did what I could, and if they aren’t what they say…well, that’s there problem sooner or later.

  15. “But we need to do a better job of making sure that the people who need it know where to find help. Most of all, we need to help create a society that doesn’t expect or rely on handouts to get by.”

    AMEN, GIRL!!! If only more people thought like you, the country would be a much better place.

    -Jen

  16. submom

    As all of the PPs said, thank you for this thought-provoking post. And thank you for letting me know that I am not the only one agonizing over “To give or not to give” to a panhandler. It is difficult to explain to young children why we should just quickly walk away, pretending we don’t see “them”, because we all want to teach our kids the RIGHT thing to do. But what is the right thing to do? Ay, there’s the rub… I take commuter trains every day, i.e. I get hit up for money for missing train fare all the time. The same people! And most of them so young (teens) It breaks my heart when I imagine them being runaways trying to eek out a living by scamming unsuspecting suburban moms…

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