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.