As my son and I exited the interstate one evening several years ago, I spotted a man just at the end of the ramp, on the left. He had graying, reddish, tousled hair, and a ruddy, weathered complexion. As I slowed before turning, he smiled and held up his cardboard and Sharpie plea for money, complete with “God Bless You” as a thanks, in advance.
Before I go any further, I must confess that I am not one to roll my window down and give strangers money. I’m not heartless or stingy. I simply don’t believe giving cash to someone who his homeless and asking for a handout is helping them in any lasting way. If anything, I believe it keeps them in their current circumstances, enables them.
You may think that a middle class white woman could not possibly understand the plight of those who resort to begging. Only a few years before, I was newly divorced with three children and no child support. I had a college degree, a student loan to go with it, and had not landed a job yet. My lease was up on my apartment and I couldn’t afford to keep it. I know more than you think.
As I said, I’m not one to give out cash from my car. I am, however, one who listens to my gut (some may call it heart or spirit). I felt compelled to tell this man that I wanted to help him (and I did want to help somehow), and to explain why I couldn’t. The desire to help this man was strong and I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to tell him.
As I rolled my window down, I slowed to a stop. My son, anxious by nature, asked why I was stopping. I assured him it was okay as the haggard man walked closer to my door. The man was smiling, in spite of an open wound on his arm that looked infected. Upon closer inspection, I could see that there were thick staples holding it closed. These weren’t surgical staples. He told me a friend had stapled it together with a staple gun. I didn’t doubt it at all.
I told him that I didn’t know why, but I needed to tell him that I wanted to help him yet wasn’t able. I explained that the new SUV I was driving was a gift from my father and that he was a car dealer. I wanted him to know, not because I felt guilty, but because I wanted him to understand my situation. I told him I was a mother, raising four children by myself (yes, another child and divorced again). I told him I wanted to help, but that I lived from paycheck to paycheck and didn’t have any money to spare. (And I still didn’t know why I was telling him this.) He sweetly patted me on the hand and said it was okay and started to walk away.
As I began rolling the window up, I noticed some change in my console. (It was my son’s but I would pay him back.) I quickly rolled the window back down and yelled out to the man to come back. I held the handful of change out, expecting the man to hold out his palm to receive it. I said, “This is all I have. Please take it.” I understood how I was supposed to help when he answered, “I don’t want your money. You just gave me the best thing you could have given me. You looked at me and talked to me like a human being.” He squeezed my hand and went back to his post.