Good Samaritan or Sucker?
January 20th, 2010
There’s a homeless guy that panhandles near my work. His name is Bill (a fact I only know because our staff know the guy – he does not volunteer his name in the course of casual conversation and I once seriously freaked him out by greeting him by name. Oops.) and he spends his days walking the streets, asking everyone he sees: “Do you know where a guy can get some work? I’m just trying to get a hot meal.”
Bill’s touchy. He had a bad experience at a Shelter once and so won’t stay at ours. I don’t know where he sleeps. And he’s one of those homeless guys that kind of gives them all a bad name because he radiates “I’m scamming you” vibes. You just know with this guy that he is not going to use your money to buy food.
How do I know? Well, because every time I’ve tried to offer to buy him food (in lieu of money), he has a creative reason to refuse. Like the time he came up to me outside of Subway and I offered to buy him a sandwich and he said he was a vegetarian (a story he’s stuck to, by the way, in subsequent conversations so maybe he really is).
In any case, I encountered him outside my bank yesterday and, as always, refused to give him money but offered to buy him a cup of coffee. He hesitated for a minute and I waited with inwardly arched brow to hear the excuse. Instead, he said “How about a pastry instead?”
So we headed into Starbucks together, and he picked out two slabs of a marble coffee cake from their case. I reiterated the coffee offer, but he declined on the grounds that he’d had two cups already that day and was suffering from heartburn. To my surprise, he actually had a decent sense of humor. He was appalled by the price tags on the Starbucks baked goods — “$2.25 for a cupcake!? There’d better be a twenty dollar bill in the middle for that!”
We parted ways outside the Starbucks. I felt good about the exchange.
Even though I work for a human services agency, I still never feel like I know how best to respond to panhandlers in the neighborhood. I know perfectly well that giving them cash isn’t going to help them in the long run, but it’s so hard to just coldly shake your head and walk away. I don’t want to go through life assuming that everyone who claims to need help is actually a drug addict or a con man. That sucks.
I remember when I was studying abroad in Scotland, there was one particular guy who always staked out the nearby ATMs. He’d ask you for money right after you got out cash. It was so awkward because it exposed the truth lurking behind all those encounters – it’s not that I don’t have the money to give you…I’m just choosing not to. And even when that’s the “right” choice, it doesn’t really make it any less cold.
So it’s always a blessing to be able to connect with someone, offer them some small bit of aid, and part ways without feelings like you’re either a heartless wench or a total sucker.