Living For The City: How Do You Determine Which People In Need You Give Money To?

November 9, 2015  |  

If I was one of these celebrities with millions of dollars, you know what I would do with it? Or at least a good portion of it? Find a way to help the homeless. That is a cause that would be, and is, close to my heart.  I always knew that the homeless population was large, but I never realized how bad things really were until I moved to New York City. To this day, I refuse to hang out around the Bowery area because something about a mission being situated between swanky restaurants and lounges just doesn’t sit right with my spirit. And while I try to give when I can, there are so many people in need in this city that at times it can be very overwhelming.

Ironically, during Sunday church service, my pastor spoke about the story of the Good Samaritan in the book of Luke. The parable of a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead. And as the man sought help as he walked down the road, a priest and a Levite saw him and walked to the other side of the road to avoid him. The man finally receives help from a Samaritan, an everyday and ordinary man who by helping his “neighbor,” did an extraordinary thing. My pastor said that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve been the person in need, the helper, but also the individuals who ignored and chose not to help someone and the regret of failing to do so.

And I can relate. When I don’t help people I often feel terrible.

Just a day earlier I was on the train, and a struggling man with no shoes whom I’d seen regularly was back at it, asking for money. And as he looked me in the face with such exasperation, I told him I didn’t have anything to give–and aside from a quarter and a few pennies in my wallet, I really didn’t. But I still felt bad. I still felt like I should have had some money to give, or at least given him the 37 cents in my wallet–thought it felt like nothing at the time.

But then there are those people you help who come off as ungrateful and aggressive. Like the man in McDonald’s last month with a limp and a cane. He looked like he could be someone in need, but he was dressed better than most of the individuals I’ve seen asking for help.

While in the restaurant, I was on a group business call. I was starving when the call started, so I muted my end of the line, walked to McDonald’s and listened in as I ordered food to go. And as I did so, I heard “Excuse me.” I continued on, paying the cashier as the man continued to say “Excuse me.” I eventually turned and whispered, “I’m on the phone, I’m sorry.”

After ordering, I went to the back of the restaurant and waited for my food, listening to the conversation. Eventually, the man approached me again, despite the other folks standing around NOT on the phone and said, “EXCUSE ME!” very loud. I had had enough at that point and, again, in a whisper, sternly told him as I pulled out some singles, “I will help you, but you need to respect the fact that when someone says they’re on the phone, they’re on the phone. There’s no need to yell in my ear when I’m talking to someone.” Instead of apologizing or even saying “Thank you” for the money, he became belligerent, saying “Well, excuse me! I was just trying to ask if you could help me get something to eat! You don’t have to act like that ma’am!” And as he continued to fuss, I tuned out, thinking to myself that out of all the people who could have used that money, it was given to someone who was currently barking in my ear. And to top it all off, he took the money and didn’t even get food, walking out the door in a huff.

And then there’s the woman who I happily gave a dollar to, only for her to say that she was hoping for a meal. As I was on my way to get pizza with my sister, I offered to get her a slice–but she wanted me to walk with her to an organic grocery store and buy her a meal.

Say what now?

I say all this to say that one big thing I’ve learned while living here is that it’s hard to figure out who you should help and how you should help people. I’m someone who rarely carries cash, so when I do, I try to help those I can. But it can be hard to determine who is homeless and without the bare necessities, and who is just panhandling because it’s a quick dollar and dime. Or who has an alcohol or drug habit they’re masking that I may inadvertently contribute to.

But I think it all comes down to the reality that you can’t help everybody, no matter how hard you try. Most everyday people can’t afford to. But the best thing you can do is give when and where you can, do so safely (don’t pull out your wallet), and not focus too much on what recipients did and didn’t do with the money.

How do you operate when it comes to giving? Have you ever given to someone and received an unexpected (and maybe unwanted) response? Ever not been able to give and felt bad?


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