Responding to the Beggar

The post below was a response to the question on Quora: Is it better to ignore a homeless person begging or to say you don’t have money?

Daily, I pass a number of homeless people, or those who live on the minimal edge of subsistence and need extra help each month. There are the disabled, the addicted, the down on their luck but trying their hardest, and the chronically lazy.

Sometimes I give a buck or two. I try not to do it if I know someone will use it on booze or drugs. My personal finances are tight enough that I often can’t really afford to give, but I do sometimes anyway. The many times I do not, I try to remind myself that these are real people.

They are not paper people. They are not statistics in a government profile, or just another homeless drug addict, or the “cause you know they’re all the same.”

They feel like losers, and find the best way they can to overcome that feeling. Some do it aggressively, and belligerently. Some avoid eye contact. Others smile as big as they can, sometimes through toothless grins, and appear as though they are on top of the world. Many of them have learned to lie, because the system doesn’t honor the truth. They have children who have rejected them, and spouses who have left them. They cry when they are alone in a cramped shelter, or trying to fall asleep under a bridge. They remember their mistakes more than their few and slim victories, and they are haunted by them.

Some of these people have become my friends. I have sat with them while they cried about their children, and contemplated suicide. I have sat with them on street corners and reminisced about train hopping or hitch-hiking across the country in the days when people still trusted each other, and I have performed their funerals when they overdosed, and passed before their time.

Sometimes I feel bad when I pass them on the street, and have nothing to give, but I feel worse if I do not look them in the eye, gauge the depth of their humanity, and greet them with at least a gentle smile. That smile may be the only thing that breaks the invisibility they suffer.

They have become my friends, and from some of them I have learned more than a thousand answers on Quora could ever say.

If you give a buck here, or a buck there, you will soon learn the difference between looking for a fix and looking for help. But, PLEASE say hello. Shrug, or simply say you can’t afford to right now. For them, just as for you, a smile can make a day, and yes, it still is the thought that counts.

I have a funny little instrument sitting on my cluttered couch right now. It’s called a strumstick. One day I arrived at my office, and the guys were looking at it wondering what it was. I quickly looked it over, and knew it was a strange little dulcimer on a stick. It sounds beautiful, but it is little and quirky. I asked were it came from. “Wind stopped in, and said it was for you.”

Wind was one of my homeless friends. A year later I performed his funeral, I gave that strumstick to his 19 year old son. The replacement strumstick on my couch is my reminder that sometimes the least of people give back more than we can ever dream.

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