When is it safe to help people?

01/23/2012 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 5:49 PM

Something has been bugging me for days, so I’m going to dump it on you, then I can quit thinking about it.

On my way to work one very cold morning last week I stopped at Walgreens, ran in, picked up some photos, paid, and hurried out because as usual I was running behind. I was approached by a woman who asked me to give her and her husband a ride because their car broke down and they needed to get home to their kids. Her husband was standing several feet away. She pointed at a car down the way. She said they needed to go to 25th Street. We were on 13th. I told her I was sorry but I was already late for work. I drove a few blocks and thought I should have given them cab fare. I worried about their kids.

When I got to work my co-workers listened to my tale of woe and said they would have been mad if I had taken the couple home. “They could have killed you.” “They could have robbed you.” “They could have kidnapped you.” “Are you nuts, Bonnie?” I probably am because it seemed like giving them a ride was the thing to do. But I didn’t.

My question is: When is it safe to help people?

How do we know if someone is making up a big fat story? But what if there were kids at home who were too young to be home without an adult? A co-worker said, “Well, it’s not your fault the parents are so irresponsible they leave their kids alone.” No, but it’s not the kids’ fault either. And what if the parents just needed a ride?

While we’re on this troubling subject, I have another question: Do you give money to those who approach you and ask for change, or say they need help getting a meal? I almost always give the person some money, especially if the person is a woman. Several of my friends want to thump me on the head when I do that, but I figure if a person has to ask for a handout, they do indeed need some help.

Two days after the above incident, a man sitting on the sidewalk outside QuikTrip quickly showed off his paper hospital bracelet to another woman as he asked for spare change. I had heard his whole story before I got out of the car so I handed him a dollar before he said a word to me. He just sat there looking at the dollar. He finally said “thank you” and looked up. It was obvious he was living on the street. The hospital bracelet was the only clean thing he was wearing.

In so many cases it would be interesting to know the person’s story. How did this man end up sitting on the sidewalk asking strangers for money? One friend continually tells me how some people want to live on the streets. They don’t want any responsibilities or ties. They just want to take life one day, then one night, at a time. And if that’s their bag, OK, but it’s when there’s a kid in the mix that it makes me crazy. OK, crazier. Life is tough enough when you’re 12 years old. Imagine not having your own bed or a place to do homework, changing schools constantly, always on the move, leaving the few friends you’d made behind.

A conversation I had with a woman in 1973 still rings in my head. She was in the park and it looked as if she had made a little temporary home on the bench complete with a dirty pillow, a couple of sacks and a pair of boots that were surely too big for her. She asked for change. I gave her some, but then sat down and asked about her life. Her name was Grace and she seemed a little surprised that anyone wanted to take time to visit. As we talked I could tell she wasn’t looking for sympathy, but was sort of matter-of-fact about a life I couldn’t imagine. She was about my age but looked older. She said she grew up homeless. She had lived in a house, an actual residence, twice in her life, but not for long. She had given up on getting an education in about the eighth or ninth grade. Her only living relative was her brother, but she didn’t know for sure where he was.

I was in my mid-20s and knew there were people in our city who didn’t have a home, but I guess I thought they were all older men. I was a teacher at the time and wondered whether any of my students would end up homeless. I found out a week later that one student and her family were living in their car. That’s when I started worrying about homeless kids. I am still worrying about them, and I think I always will.

Thanks for listening. I feel a little better now, but would love to know what you think.

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