Wednesday, September 1, 2010

help me possibly help him

Here in Austin you can't drive through an intersection without seeing a person holding a sign asking for money or food. And while I will gladly donate to food/meal distribution centers I just can't bring myself to hand money out the window of my car. Call me cynical but I always assume the worst, that the money will be spent on drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol. So I just keep my eyes on the road and my wallet shut.

This method of selective blindness has been working well for me but last week a new guy moved onto a corner I pass frequently. He's a young guy missing both legs, cruising around the corner during morning traffic while wearing fatigues. I've seen him a few times now and each time there's something about him that pulls at my heartstrings. I tend to keep a few dollars in my purse in case I encounter a place that doesn't accept debit cards and this morning I just about handed that cash out the window to him. I pulled up to the light, reached for my purse, and then noticed him lighting a cigarette. That simple act stopped me dead in my tracks.

Like I said, I assume the worst. If he's buying cigarettes then maybe he is making money somewhere and he isn't in as dire of a situation as I'm thinking? I mean, surely he wouldn't buy them over food, right? And if he is buying cigarettes over food, then that's a bad situation that I don't need to aid.

Being the skeptic I am, I took my hand out of my purse and kept driving. But also being an over-thinker I haven't stopped dissecting the situation. Did I over react? What if he didn't buy the cigarette, what if it came from a car. I've seen smokers hand them to people on corners, so it isn't unheard of. Am I judging the guy too harshly? If for some reason I feel compelled to give him $5 should I just give him the money and he can spend it however he wants, that part is not my concern. Or should I make a donation to a homeless shelter instead knowing they will spend it appropriately?

So friends, what say you? Should I stop being overly critical and just give the guy a few bucks or pass that money along to an organization?

For the record I realize we are talking about very little money and I would donate more to an organization than I would hand the guy, but still. I just want to feel like I'm doing some good which I realize is selfish but whatever. That feeling of "I helped, yay me! " is a big reason people donate money.


  1. If I were a homeless guy with no legs I'd sure as shit be smoking, drinking and doing whatever drugs I could get my hands on to forget the aforementioned not having legs and living on the streets.

    Here's where I come to with this: If I give something to someone - money to people on the street or even a gift to a friend - it's theirs to do with as they please in whatever way makes them happy. And specifically in giving money to street people - I definitely spend money on myself in completely ridiculous but probably more socially acceptable ways to feel better on a daily basis about parts of my life that make me unhappy so I can't begrudge someone else doing the same with whatever money they happen to have. The few dollars you hand over aren't going to change their lives - they aren't going to get off the street because you handed them a fiver - so if the pack of smokes they buy takes the edge off some misery for a day then why is that a bad thing? Is it any worse then your pedicures or my expensive handbags?

    Having said that I almost never give money to people soliciting on the street but that's not because I care where they'd spend it but because if I started I couldn't stop and I'd be broke fast. I make a decision at the beginning of the year where I'm going to donate money in the upcoming year and I write a bunch of checks and that's it. Sometimes that's for the homeless (ugh, that's my worst nightmare by far and people are often quite closer to that happening than they like to think) but sometimes it isn't. Whatever works for you I guess.

  2. I am in the same boat with you, Regan.

    Why not find the local free medical clinic in Austin and donate there?

  3. If someone is hard-up enough that they're asking for money on the street, I don't really care what they do to cope. They can spend their money however they want, and I will happily give any spare change I might have. I live a hugely privileged life by comparison.

    Donating to homeless shelters is wonderful, but shelters are usually overcrowded and underfunded and can only service a small percentage of people in need. In most cities, there are long waiting lists that favour new clients, women, youth, etc., meaning that there is a large population in need that isn't served well by shelters. They also have usage caps: many shelters, food banks, and other social support services have policies where you can only use their services once a month, or for a specific period of time. If you're in need after that, you're expected to go to a different shelter or make other arrangements. Additionally, there are a lot of barriers to using services: most require ID, many require proof of unemployment and/or proof of homelessness. You can't assume that someone begging on the street can just go to a shelter and have his or her needs met.

    Also, I just want to point out: smoking is a pretty insignificant vice on the scale of things someone living on the street could use to cope.

  4. I would just give him a couple bucks. Or could you toss him a gift card to McDonald's or something? Or to the grocery store?

    It's hard because there are so many panhandlers and I cannot help them all. It breaks my heart. I wish I could do more.

  5. I know smoking is a small vice, and who the hell am I to judge what he does. But if I drive to the next corner and I see a woman who wants money for her kids and I have just given the guy who might blow his money on cigarettes all my change then I feel guilty. And yes, I know there is no guarantee the women will actually use her money on the kids, or that she even has kids but still I have guilt.

  6. there is a particular homeless guy i see begging all the time, and i normally divert my eyes. he seems nice enough, but like some others have said, i think a donation to an organization i trust will be better spent. but one day i happen to be coming from the grocery store when i saw him, so i had all kinds of food and treats at arms reach. i rolled down my window and asked the guy if he'd want a chocolate bar. you should have seen his eyes light up. so i handed over a stupid expensive, organic chocolate bar and i think it made us both feel good. my suggestion - offer the guy something fun that doesn't cost you a bunch - like a powerbar or chocolate bar or whatever. everybody wins and you can still donate real money to a legitimate organization.

    fyi-my shift key isn't working, thus the lower case and creatively chosen punctuation. ;p

  7. This is what I do:
    -i do give money to people playing an instrument, singing, juggling, tapping, whatever (because it's embarrassing and hard and it deserves a buck if I've got it)
    -i don't give cash money to anyone else (wheelchair, homeless, those people with the all over paint who just stand there, no one)
    -i do offer to buy someone who needs it/is holding a sign some food (hamburger, taco, whatever is closest by and costs less than $3 or so) and I buy it and then hand it over
    -i don't buy candy from kids on the subway purporting to be raising money (this is a total scam)
    -i do buy girl scout cookies or items from a lemonade stand in front of a house
    and of course i do give money to organizations whenever possible

  8. oh - and my shift key works fine, I'm just lazy

  9. Regan this is a hard issue. I've been more on the side to donate to an establishment, not to the person, but reading Anon's comment makes me re-think. So I'd say give him some, or a snack or something. It might even be good for Truman to see you being generous like that. (hmm so many things come down to being lessons for children now a days. )

  10. Don't feel guilty about not giving the guy the money. Writing a check to an organization if you need to assuage your guilt and/or keep a fiver close at hand for the next time you see him. I almost never give money to panhandlers (prefer organizations) but I once (on a whim) gave a guy in SF a $20 and he asked me if I wanted change! He looked like he could really use it and at that moment I didn't care what he spent it on. Another time I gave a powerbar type granola bar to a guy on the street in Palo Alto because that was what I had in easy reach and he looked at me like I'd given him a bag of I figured that particular guy wasn't really homeless and was just out to see how much he could get off the PA folks.

  11. I think if you're this fired-up about it, do some research and see if you can find a good org in Austin that does some kind of job training or something else to help people get themselves off the streets. If you can find the time and childcare, volunteer there along with giving them some money. I also am fond of giving people a clif bar. If their sign says "I'm hungry" or whatever, they should appreciate the snack. I'm also in to giving performers money, assuming they're half way decent! If they're annoying, no change for them...

  12. Came across this article this morning, and it's pretty relevant to the discussion:

  13. I have to echo what some other people said- if I were homeless with no legs, I would be smoking too. Hell, sometimes I want to smoke because of my stupid problems (WHICH ARE IN NO WAY SERIOUS). That said, I usually don't hand out money because i've seen people literally being dropped off on the corner to beg by fancy SUVs. But if dude looks legit homeless and has no legs? Why not? I have no issues aiding his vice because smoking? Probably not what got him into that situation.

  14. So...if I stand on a corner, people will give me money for alcohol? That's freakin awesome!

    All jokes aside, I guess I will be lame and echo what others have said. The homeless population in Austin is astronomical and the money you give any one of these folks is not likely to make a significant dent in their lives. It might, but I doubt it and if you're giving it to them with that intent, don't. If you want to make someone's day, do. Either way, SOME tourist will give them cash and they'll forget all about shaking their fists at you behind your back.

    I volunteer every once in awhile at that HUGE homeless shelter downtown serving meals to homeless. You are welcome to join if you want to make a dent in our city's little homeless issue.

  15. There was a homeless guy who had a regular spot on University. I saw him there for years and finally just ended up bringing him food from whatever restaurant I happened to be eating at. It didn't solve any problems that lead to his situation but I figured a little kindness might help. In fact, I think if we were all a little kinder to each other it might help.