Can You Spare Some Change?

The Tenderloin knows the struggling merchants, harbors the drug deals and feels the pain of the drunk who lacks a way or a will to survive. The Tenderloin shoulders the despair of the youth shot down by the new knowledge that a virus hides in the blood, and understands the fear that expensive drugs affordable on the floors above may be unavailable to save a life on the streets below. The Tenderloin understands that sex can be just a job and that it’s the hunger from the outside, and the loneliness inside, that needs to be fed. The Tenderloin understands that though they might hide in the shadows behind the limousines arriving in the Theatres, or under the sparkle of the financial skyline, each person here thinks of this, San Francisco, as their own city and their home.

Removed from the reality of its streets, you’ll often hear people talk about avoiding the Tenderloin, saying they don’t like the neighborhood, or advocating mass demolition and removal. Even from within the district, people look down and hope that things will get better or go away.

The drunks on the corner; the old man in a wheelchair selling drugs; the undocumented immigrants who work themselves into a hidden economy and new life; the students who live here because they can’t afford to live anywhere else; and the old people who have stayed because it is their home: the streets are theirs.

–Eric Miller, New Colonist

I’m still learning my way around San Francisco. The other evening I needed to attend a panel discussion on homelessness that was held at the YMCA in the Tenderloin. I rode the Muni with my coworkers, and we walked the three blocks from Civic Center Station together. When I left after 8 p.m. alone, I re-traced my steps. I was not wearing flat shoes, did not know exactly where I needed to go, and thus felt a little vulnerable. I made my way past ragged people sitting on the sidewalk, down the hill past the Hastings College of Law. As I approached the station, I saw a woman sitting in a wheelchair, without legs, holding a plastic cup.

In the past I typically have not given money to pandhandlers. Many years ago when I was a poor working student, I literally didn’t have pocket change to spare. I needed it for bus fare and food. I lived from paycheck to paycheck. Later, living in Texas, I felt uncomfortable reaching into my pocket for money; I did not feel safe. Eventually I began handing out bottled water to panhandlers at traffic intersections. In Texas, especially during summer, water is essential.

Yet that evening I had just heard about the problem of homelessness in the city and was reminded of how incredibly blessed I am to be healthy, employed, have shelter and food and clothing; blessed that I am not addicted to a life-destroying substance, that I have education and experience to give me opportunities. The woman in the wheelchair had a frail, weather-beaten face. She asked if I could spare change; I dug into my pocket and gave her what I had. I said that I didn’t have much, and she replied, “Even a penny will help, dear.” And then she thanked me.

One hundred feet later I was approached as I headed into the station. A young man said, “Excuse me,” and began telling me his woes as we walked downstairs. He was broke, had no place to sleep that night except at a buddy’s motel room, but it would require $7. He had a wound on his leg that he was supposed to keep wrapped, and he went so far as to lift his pant leg to show me. It was indeed a raw looking wound. He kept walking along until I got to the gate. He did not ask for anything specifically and ended with “Anything you could do to help…” To which I answered that I was sorry, I could not. He expressed disappointment. He’d gone through the effort of telling his story for nothing.

All the way home I pondered the situation. Should I have given something? Why did I not? Well, I felt uncomfortable stopping to dig out my wallet to give him money. I was loaded down, my messenger bag heavy with books, my purse tangled on my shoulder. I had no more spare change in my pocket. I did not like the fact that he hooked onto me, following me down the stairs as he told me a sad story. I did not like the fact that he didn’t directly ask me for what he wanted. I felt manipulated, even if he wasn’t consciously playing me. If he’d directly asked me to spare a few dollars, would I have done so? If I’d had a buck in my pocket, I may have. So one reason I didn’t was that I felt unsafe.

Another reason is expressed by these questions: Where does it end? If I give to one person, shouldn’t I give to them all? I can’t afford to, can I? If I don’t give to every person who asks for change, how do I determine who deserves my money?

Another question: How do I know my money won’t be used to buy drugs? If someone says they’re hungry, I could offer to buy them food from a nearby shop. But that still puts me at risk. What if the person attempts to mug me in the process? And really, can I afford to buy a sandwich for everyone who asks for food?

I am saddened by the fact that I live in a world where so many are homeless. I am also grieved by the fact that I am uneasy and on guard, that this edginess mutes my willingness to help. I had some bad experiences many years ago, particularly with men. In one case I was hit in the face by a man on the bus who was egged on by his buddies; the bus driver did nothing. I moved to the front of the bus, and the man who hit me followed me up front, threatening me. The other incident involved a man who lived upstairs from me in Syracuse which involved him speaking abusively to me and grabbing my butt. And there was also the assault (committed by an acquaintance, but it still reverberates in my life).

What is my moral obligation to the world? How do I meet it? Those are the questions on my mind. I give regularly to certain non-profits that deal with literacy, children, environment, wildlife, and hunger. Should I be doing more at street level, one-on-one with humans, meeting their eyes and extending compassion? In the meantime, I’ve decided I will carry in my pocket a few folded dollar bills, easily accessible to hand out the next time my heart is moved and it feels safe to respond. I’m curious as to how you respond when approached.

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12 Comments on “Can You Spare Some Change?”

  1. Linda Says:

    I live in Africa and the poverty is vast and heart breaking. It is impossible to give to everyone at every robot and street corner. I have chosen two homeless people who live in my area because they are both unable to help themselves. Rasta has lost his mind and lives in a world of his own and Madala has had a stroke and is very old. I do object to women using their children to beg at robots until late at night. They are often under the age of five, are verbally abused daily and its a matter of time before one of them is killed.

    I do what I can at that time with what I have.

  2. Caroline Says:

    Wow. This glimpse into your life and your spirit is doing good things for my soul this morning. You are just fabulous. I, too, get really bogged down with the question of what to give. I grew up in an upper-middle class home, where I could always ask for money — my own little Welfare system. Even into my 30’s, my dear mom sent checks to cover air fare or medical expenses. I give to people in the street, but am wary of being mugged. Your feeling of being too bogged down was smart. Someone in the Bronx just got stabbed when he gave money to a homeless man. Last week I gave $20 to a Walmart worker when she was super rude to me. I figured she was having a hard life. It was then that I recalled George Orwell’s statement in “Down and Out in Paris and London” that the beggar must necessarily despise the man [sic] who gives him money. Anyway, bless you for your clarity and honesty.

  3. katherine Says:

    . . . I lived in NYC for a lot of years – where the homeless refuse a ham sandwich because it is made with mayo not mustard and they don’t like mayo 🙂 I make this joke because NYC, at least when I lived there, had an integrated feel, the homeless and the homed all sharing the same space and seeing one another regularly. So, part of my living was slipping some of my neighbors a few bucks, or giving them clothes or objects to sell or a muffin or a bottle of hooch.

    One of my most sacred moments in nyc was a homeless women I came upon that I stood and spoke with for a few minutes and we stood belly to belly, arms around one another laughing. It was Friday night and I was gussied up and on a date and I’d given her money to buy some beer and she was thanking me for helping her party a little, for not judging her for wanting to have a little fun, and she wished me well as I set off to have a cocktail of my own.

    I heard a million homeless stories – I sat down with them and listened, got asked out on a few dates (homeless men are most definitely still men :), and learned that the lovely polite woman who panhandled on the corner by my job was actually putting herself thru school doing it. People think of NYC as cold hearted but there was also so much love there, and most people I knew had a least several homeless people that they helped out in some way with change, food, a warm coat. Living there caused the sense of Other about them to drop and I could see them as people.

    And there were a lot of panhandlers that I didn’t give money to, when the vibe felt wrong, off, I’d just walk on past, but at least smile at them. I think it’s the fear that keeps us from helping – fear that we’re being set up, fear that we’re being used, fear that we’re somehow not doing the right thing. But it’s ultimately about doing the things we feel to do, making sure we keep things clean in our own hearts.

    What I heard in your post was a sense of regret somehow, that even as something in you felt the vibe was wrong with this kid, you somehow sensed that you may have missed something. It’s never to late to make a ‘wrong’ energy right in the world. 🙂

  4. msmpt Says:

    I see a mother’s child, when I see homeless people on the street. I keep on thinking what if it where my kid, my son, my daughter. What has put them in these straits? I am however too trusting and have been fooled before. That being said, if someone asks me for help directly, I will give them what I can afford. If I see someone on the street with a cup, I walk on past. I never forget these “un-generous” acts on my part, and I rethink the situation for a while “Should I have, what if I had…” In the end though, I go more for the organised charities, donating goods and money, hoping that they know better how to use it to help those in need.

  5. Pat Says:

    We have a comparable situation in some ways . . . a young woman who keeps hitting us up for money. She calls and says she “has had nothing to eat for days but bananas” because she is totally broke. Etc.

    I do think she is financially really strapped. However, while we do want to help, we have sent her money about five times now and we are really about tapped out.

    I am sorry to say, we are also feeling increasingly resentful.

    People come to be broke, hungry, and about to be tossed out onto the street. This happens. Are we supposed to sustain large cash gifts to a person for weeks, or even months?

    Sorry — we are about done. As for panhandlers on the streets — I am not sure whether it is a good idea to give to them or not. Right now I am in a rather negative mood about being tapped, and would probably just walk past any panhandler if I saw one. They are rather rare in my little Midwestern town.

  6. donna Says:

    I support the ones who are at least doing their best to entertain us – the bucket drummers, the guitar players, the man with the trained cats who told my fortune in Santa Monica. These people have at least put some effort into thinking of what they *could* do to earn a living, even if they don’t get a lot of support for it.

    I have a mentally disabled sister and nephew, and know if circumstances were different, they could be on the street. I’m still not too sure about the nephew – he chooses to live not much above that level, refusing to kick out his “friends” who mooch and steal from him until he has nothing left.

    As hard as it is, in a lot of these cases there is a choice made. In others, it is simply bad luck. The wisdom of knowing the diffenerece may simply be in how you feel about that person, since it is impossible to give to them all.

  7. Jana Says:

    I am probably one of the most cynical people you’ll find. My personal take on charity is that other than giving through reputable charities, the best way to help the world is to help those you KNOW, who need help… to get them on their feet, so they can help others that they know. I don’t give money to strangers, because that makes me vulerable (easier to steal my purse when it’s off my shoulder, etc.) because I don’t know what it’s going to be spent on when I give it to a stranger, and because I am very cynical of the people’s stories. So, that’s just me.

  8. Shirl Says:

    I seldom give to panhandlers. It’s just one of those things. However, there is a lady who searches the trash barrels downtown for bottles. She happened to be nearby as I got out of my car one day. I had bottles to return in the backseat. I asked her if she wanted them. “Oh sure,” she said, and was delighted with the haul. Somehow that worked for me.

  9. Dave H Says:

    I don’t know what the answers are, but you’re asking the right questions!

  10. cicada Says:

    Boston had a great system for helping others while retaining a modicum of personal safety–for a nominal fee, you could buy a packet of vouchers that could be exchanged by the bearer for food and other basic necessities at local stores and community shelters. Some people refused to take the vouchers and asked for cash instead, but for a lot of people it seemed to be a good solution.

    One night in Boston I was walking home, carrying a box of things that I was moving from my office. A man fell into step with me and began talking, but because it was late and dark, I was not at all friendly. At one point, he said, “I’m not going to rob or hurt you–I just wanted you to look at me. I am tired of being invisible.” What a tremendous gift that man gave me, even though I had so many more worldly goods at the time. I don’t think I will ever forget it.

  11. acm Says:

    I’ve spent many years where there are homelss — sometimes random, sometimes local fixtures. I tend not to give them money because I think that the local shelters and soup kitchens are better placed to tend to their needs (and because they ask us not to help support the drink and drug habits of those they try to help). It does feel judgemental though.

    Sometimes I split the difference, by carrying some apples or (even lighter and more calorie-dense) individually wrapped breakfast bars, which I can then give out to anybody who professes hunger. I especially do this in the winter, and it seems appreciated. A few drops in the bucket…

    I try to do my part in other ways, as by supporting the local charities and food banks with money and time. Each of us can only do so much, but we also don’t want to develop callouses toward human need, so it’s an ongoing balance…

    my penny for the pond

  12. taliesin Says:

    If I’m in the mood I’ll give people a little money when approached. Perhaps I should regard what they spend it on as my concern, but I don’t; I smoke myself and being stopped on a Paris street and being asked for a cigarette happens every day.

    What I won’t do is give to children who should be in school, women with babies and other people who are sadly known in the French capital to be themselves the victims of organised begging. They’re pitiful and sometimes heart-breaking, but if you think you’re helping them, you’re really doing it for the men who send them out every day then beat them up if they don’t come back with enough.

    Thus I’d rather give to charities that try to get to the root of this issue, since the government doesn’t.

    By the way, I’m not sure that Linda, who made the first comment here, realises that “robot” is not widely understood internationally the way she means it: a traffic light. I didn’t know that myself until I went to South Africa.

    But then, in France, literally you stop or go at the “fire”!