‘Brother [sister] can you spare a…?’

Last week Hans was standing on Broad St. near Temple Medical School and a guy walked up to him and asked him if he had a quarter.  Hans said “no.” The guy walked away muttering “a**hole.”  Was Hans obliged to give the guy a quarter? And since he didn’t, does that make him an a**hole?  Hardly!

After Hans told me this story last night, we had a conversation about giving money to people on the street–panhandlers, homeless, destitute, whatever their situation.  After living and working in DC for over three years, I had to come up with a strategy that I could feel good about.

Kristen’s “spare change policy” circa 2006:

  • If I have loose change in my pocket, give it out.
  • Contribute either with money or time to an organization advocating or assisting the homeless.

Pretty straightforward and it worked well for me while I was living in DC.  But times change.

When we first arrived in Florida from the Bahamas in 2009 we spent a rainy afternoon at a gazebo in Daytona Beach, Fla. waiting for the public library to open.  Not surprisingly, we were joined a by a small group of men and one woman also waiting for 2PM.  These people were either homeless, in transition, or living at temporary housing which closed at 9AM.  We had a great conversation with them, sharing stories of our travels through the Caribbean and commiserated with them about the tight restrictions on access to public space on the east coast of Florida.  For the sake of my “spare change policy,” I need to generalize a little here.  People living on the street, or those that find themselves in in-between places are lacking regular human interactions.  So often people just pass them by, trying to look the other way, often times to reduce their own sense of guilt. I know, I’ve done it before and I know I’ll do it again.  The people we met in Daytona probably weren’t that interested in our sailing adventures or the geography of the ICW, but were just happy to have a conversation. This experience caused me modify my “spare change policy.”

Kristen’s “spare change policy” circa 2010

  • If I have loose change in my pocket, give it out.
  • Be human. If I give spare change, look the person in the eye and say, “sure, here you go.” If I don’t have spare change, look the person in the eye and say, “nope, not today” or “sorry, not today.”
  • Contribute either with money or time to an organization advocating or assisting the homeless.

What about you? What is your spare change policy?

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7 responses to “‘Brother [sister] can you spare a…?’

  1. Joe Steiner

    I give spare change if Ihave it in my pocket. Always.
    I vote for the party that is likely to improve education and opportunity.
    I vote for the party that will do something to send illegals back to their country and do something to keep them out.
    So the first one I can do, and maybe that helps. The next two is useless.

  2. You really gave me something to think about. Why does it bother me when someone asks me for money. I will be honest and tell you that often it’s because it’s someone who looks like they could be working. I’ll also admit I usually say no. But then why did I hand a dollar to a guy who asked me for money just last week? I’ll have to think on that some more. Maybe it’s because I took the time to look him in the eye. Thanks for making me think.

  3. I only give money to someone who seems to want to do something in return for it. We were offered a 1-block tour of an area in Dominica in return for a little cash. Sure. We offered some spare change to someone else who came up and offered us some sorry bananas. I’ve given change to people offering to shine shoes (even if I was wearing sneakers) and those that were standing outside a McDonalds in the cold wishing for a warm coffee. If it’s obvious it’s not going to go to more booze/drugs for them to continue their downward spiral and they are making the slightest effort to use whatever talent they can find within themselves, then I’ll meet them partway. But I will not just give $ to someone who won’t look me in the eye either (sadly, they’re already gone and my spare change ain’t gonna help them).

  4. While working at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, many, many times, when leaving work we were approached for “spare change” or “subway/bus fare.” Most of the time, I gave a little, figuring that no matter how the other person got to the point of asking strangers for money, his life was in worse shape than mine. Once, someone on the sidewalk gave me a quick sob story that was just hard to believe, but I gave her a couple of bucks anyway. I noticed an old man standing nearby, watching me and the person who had approached me. I asked him if he had heard her story, and whether he thought the story was mostly true or if I had been suckered. The old man, the witness, sort of smiled and sort of grimaced, and told me it was about a 50/50 call. But that was okay with me. Like I said, however she got to that point, her life was in worse shape than mine. I give to panhandlers for two reasons: to help them a little, and to preserve my humanity. And if they don’t use my gift to buy a meal but buy a bottle instead, so what? Haven’t I ever wasted my money and time by assuaging my pain with alcohol?

  5. Thanks for the comments!
    @ Joe: I like the idea of adding voting to my policy (and ditto on the fact that our government seems to be useless these days!); I don’t have any statistics to back me up here, but I have a feeling that there are far more homeless on the streets in the US that are war vets battling with mental health issues, not ‘illegal immigrants.’
    @Wendy: before I developed my ‘policy’ I was very inconsistent with how I ‘helped’ people. a quarter here, a look of irritation there. so at least I am consistent now!
    @ Renee: Now I just feel bad for not giving some pesos to the shoe shine boys in the DR b/c I was wearing flip flops or sneakers.
    @ Mik: nice points: 1. you’ve got to be in pretty bad shape to be asking for $$ in the first place (or at least worse off than me) and 2. I would be a millionaire right now if it weren’t for my love of rum (and red wine, and white wine and a good microbrew).

    As for who do you give money to? Well, I give it to anyone who asks, no matter what they look like (and as long as I have change in my pocket). Partly because of Mik’s point and partly because I can’t know someone just by looking at them and have no idea what has put them in that position in the first place. So, I might as well give them some change. The other component of that is dealing with the root problems, or helping find a solution–giving money and time to a shelter, mental health clinic, food bank, etc.

  6. Hi Mik – I just have to disagree. The people who are using your donation to buy more booze most likely ended up in the situation they’re in because of their drinking. Why enable them? Of course, you can tell the difference. You’d help more by handing that person a card to a homeless shelter that doubles as a rehab/job center. Sure I’ve escaped into the juice occasionally, but I never lost a job over it; and I’ve almost been homeless myself so know how it could happen to anyone. I can guarantee you that if someone had given me any $, I wouldn’t have wasted it on alcohol (or cigarettes) – not when I was trying to pull my life back together. Most people give money because it makes them feel better. It’s an easy act of selflessness. We know that person could just as easily be us, so we give them $ as a form of knocking on wood. But personally, as someone that came close to that same precipice, (and as you suggest Kristen), I think your money would be better spent giving to organizations that can do more for these people (like the ones that gave me cheese and bread) than your measly change (particularly the coins that end up giving business to the drug dealers).

  7. Joe Steiner

    I am probably mxing issues here, yes, war vets battling to survive on the streets is an even bigger disgrace and sign of a failed government, than the disgrace that our government can not defend our borders, nor process immigrants who aspire for a better life.
    Where are our priorities? We spend $185 B bailing out AIG but can not come up with solution for the mentally ill war vets??

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