The Kind of Thing I Should Probably Keep to Myself
But If I Weren't Leaving You

City of Mine

Yesterday I had a meeting down in Georgetown -- the part of Georgetown where foot traffic kind of dies and there isn't a beauty product to be purchased for several blocks. I took the bus, because I am Industrious and Independent, and as I was walking (okay, more like tottering gingerly over the cobblestones in my stupidly high heels) towards my destination I passed a man who had just parked his car.

A very nice, newish Acura. With leather interior. And Virginia plates.

He unloaded some milk crates from his trunk onto a little hand truck.

The milk crates were stuffed full of newspapers and plastic grocery bags.

A cardboard sign and a beat-up Big Gulp cup were attached to the crates with a bungee cord.

As he stepped away to feed the meter, I got a better look at the sign.

HOMELESS VET. HUNGRY PLEASE HELP. GOD BLESS.

I stopped and stared at him. He was wearing ripped jeans and several flannel shirts despite the broiling heat and humidity. I watched him swipe a credit card through the high-tech meter, pocket his receipt and then merrily make his way up M St., up to where the sidewalks are a sea of shopping bags and outstretched cups of change, with the hand truck bumping and clattering on the sidewalk behind him. He didn't care at all that I had seen it all and was still standing by his car, staring after him. I think he started whistling.

I didn't know whether to yell at him or call him an asshole or indignantly snap a camera phone picture of him, or his car, or his license plate, or what.

I just walked away instead. It really wasn't anything I didn't already kind of know.  It was just concrete evidence for a working theory.

Later, while waiting for the bus home, another man approached me. He was dirty and smelled bad.  He asked for a quarter for food, and the fingernails on his extended hand were long and crusty and yellow.

I gave him a dollar. He said God bless and kind of bowed. Then he walked away, whistling.

Comments

Jennifer

I hate that scammers have made it so that I never give money to "homeless please help" people anymore.

A few months ago, I had the day off work and I was walking to the gym around 10am. I was stopped by this woman who wasn't dressed badly, and she begged me for a ride, or money for a taxi because she and her sister had been in the emergency room all night (I work at, and my gym is next to, a hospital) with her nephew, and now they couldn't get home.

I said no, because I never want to whip out my wallet on the street and start leafing through it for a couple singles -- but I felt TERRIBLE for the rest of the day. I could have walked back to my house and given them a ride. I didn't want to miss going to the gym (not to mention the obvious safety issues of driving somewhere with a complete stranger).

A week later, my boyfriend and I were walking in a different area of town, when we were approached by the same woman, with a different, yet similar, story. My boyfriend politely told her no, and we kept walking, and when we were out of earshot I EXPLODED. I couldn't believe she had lied to me, and I'd felt so bad for not helping.

I'll never believe another person soliciting money on the streets again. Which is sad, because there are a lot of people who legitimately need help.

dawn

We had a cast of characters on the streets in Pittsburgh when I lived there, and you could come to know who genuinely needed help and who was just passing through. There was the former vet who had no right arm or right leg and zipped around town with one crutch. And he was always happy for a shred of conversation or a little bag just for him from McDonald's. He used his money for bus fare to go to the V.A. hospital from time to time. There were also the two transvesites who slept by the pharmacy and always got up and put on their makeup. (I swear, I didn't get the Crystal Waters song out of my head for an entire summer.) They were used to people averting their eyes. Then there was the woman with two small cats to keep her company, so if you gave her cat food, she was grateful that at least the critters got some food.

Then came the a*hole in the business suit, asking to borrow a dollar for the bus because his car supposedly broke down, and yet everyone always felt better handing the buck to the guy who looked like he would have otherwise been earning it. I know every city has them, but somehow everyone feels better about supporting the clean, well-to-do-looking buy who says he has a family to get home to instead of giving it to the one whose home is right where you're standing.

warcrygirl

And this is why I NEVER give anyone money. If they are hungry I buy them a sandwhich. If they have a baby that needs diapers I demand to see the baby first then ask them what size diapers they need. You'd be amazed how many of these "homeless" insist on cash. Well, maybe your won't. I guess the 'truth' indicator for this would be the smell; no one wants to stink up their Acura.

Cocoa Soleil

I remember seeing a story like this on NBC4 (I live in the DC Metro area too :o)They followed this homeless guy from his little spot on the corner as he went and got into his car that was parked around the corner. The kicker is that before he got into his car, he pulled out a huge bankroll of cash (a wad that would make any pimp proud...)and proceeded to drive to his 2 story home in the suburbs! My mouth hit the floor...

Julie

Wow. An urban legend, verified. For those DC folks who want to help the homeless: google "so others might eat." Job training, housing, and food for those in need. It makes it a little easier to deny those who ask for $ on the street if you have given to a similar organization.

Frema

I agree with the posters above who seem to be in the minority. Some are really homeless, some aren't, some want beer, some want a Big Mac, really, what's it to you? The couple of bucks you throw them can't exactly buy them a suit for a job interview or be used for a down payment on a house.

My dad is a firefighter in Chicago and deals with homeless people all the time. There's one man he would pass on the way to work; he slept under an overpass and was always grateful for anything my dad gave him. One winter, it was so cold that my dad invited him to sleep in our basement, which is separate from our apartment. He stayed in the basement most of the time, where he could sleep (we gave him pillows and blankets and he slept on the floor) and wash up (there was a sink for laundry). My mom made him his meals, which he would eat downstairs, only coming up at night when my dad invited him to watch a movie. He only stayed for about a week because he felt bad about "putting us out." He went back to the overpass. Just thinking about how grateful that man was and how eager my dad was to help him makes me want to cry.

In my dad's line of work, he has more opportunities than most to become jaded about the world, and yet he still gives whatever he can, whenever he can. I agree with Angie. Getting scammed once or twice and using that to judge every other homeless person you see for the rest of your life--when you KNOW they can't all be "fakes"--doesn't seem right to me.

Anyway, I could have summed all of this up with "Good for you for not losing heart."

Erika

Of course there are the same people at the Metro station morning and night every day. I get so frustrated with them...because while in some instances I might drop a couple of dollars in their cup, I never do it after an hour-and-a-half commute on my way TO WORK, and certainly not after a 10-hour WORK.DAY.

Katie

LOVE your post, Angie! I couldn't have said it better myself. Can't believe no one else is backing you up on this!
Katie

LCA

I'm with Angie.

I once gave en embarrassingly large sum to a guy with a story that he worked in maintenance at a hospital and he needed to get home (in another town, 20 miles or so away) and he didn't have money, and he had never done this before, and he was embarrassed to ask. Scam? Who knows. I don't care. I still think about it and wonder, but I'd rather do that than think about it and feel bad for not giving.

Good for you, Amalah.

Maureen

I have given subway tokens and exact change for the bus to people, because I imagine how awful it would be to be stuck when all you need is $1.60 to get home! Please! $1.60! However, one time at about 34th St., I gave a supposedly deaf guy a SEPTA token and directions to 69th St. Station. About a week later, the exact same guy came up to me somewhere around 20th St. with the exact same "I am deaf. Where is 69th St. Station?" note. I did not help him that time.

Silly Hily

I have nothing to add other than you handled that whole situation MUCH better than I would have.

Aimee

Wow! Lots of comments for this topic. On a side note, people have mentioned the little cards that are handed out by the deaf. Back even in the non-ADA-concious society of the 70s - my mom took a sign language course and the teacher who taught the course (who may or may not have been deaf) told them that if they were approached by someone who was trying to sell those cards, they should sign no, and tell them to get a job. Apparently, like the cardboard sign generation - the "deaf card giveaways" was considered a cop-out.
Just thought I'd toss that out there. I always say no, but it would definitely be hard to sign "get a job" without feeling like a jerk. :)

Pavlina

That is terrible...but on the other hand. If it bothers you (or anyone) that much, then just don't give money to anyone. This may come off as holier-than-thou, but all I am really trying to say is this: please don't give your money away then feel that you have the right to be outraged when it isn't being used as you see fit.

If you want it to go to food, then just give food. Don't give money then be upset when you see the person buying a pint of spirits. Really.

Vickee

This, and the fact that herds of 'bums' travel around the country, assisted by their van-driving 'pimps', going to their staked territories in season. Phoenix for winter, or parts of CA (which is getting difficult, I've heard) Colorado for summer, Denver and Boulder malls are notoriously easy pickin's for these characters. They make a Boat Load of money. They get high school girls to beg for food for them - who could refuse a 'hungry kid' their leftovers? That way, Every Single Cent can go towards booze, drugs or their pimp's demanded and extorted percentage.

Here's a seen-with-my-own-eyes scene: A large 12-person van pulls up, with a guy decently dressed driving. He jumps out and starts barking orders. He opens the back door, and takes out 'outfits' and signs proclaiming destitution, pain and suffering. He hands out the 'outfits' (including humps, eye patches, arm slings and I AM NOT KIDDING - a rabbit!!!!) and tell them which blocks are 'theirs' and to respect each other's turf and what time time me at 'the usual pick-up'. Then he reminds them that they owe him HIS CUT! They start shuffling off to the pedestrian malls, and snag a few handouts in the next half block. I am still standing there, with my mouth agape. The driver turns around, tells me to Fuck Off (I haven't said a word!) and drives off.

Don't give money to bums. There are tons of places where there is assistance for food, water or coffee, and sleeping areas. If you want to hand them something, give them your doggy bag from dinner or lunch.

Thanks for posting this on a place where many people will read it, Amy. It's a HUGE PROBLEM in urban areas. The more $$$$ people give, the more 'bums' there are.

Christie

I met a woman who catsat in my neighborhood. She was homeless but drove a big Cadillac. When I talked to her, and learned more about her, I realized that she was schizophrenic (with probably a variety of other mental health issues) and that her great aunt or someone had left the car to her when she died. That car was all that she had in the world. When she wasn't catsitting, she slept/lived in it. So on the outside, she looked very elegant driving around in her Cadillac, but on the inside, she was poor, homeless, and quite crazy. Anyway, sometimes (as you well know), things aren't always as they seem. [I love your blog and am a longtime reader.]

amber

I work at a very small church... we don't have extra money to give to sob stories, but luckily there is a single phone call people can make to reach several agencies at once. I give that out instead. Usually I get hung up on before I get the number out. I now also carry this around with me for random strangers.

AND. I'm lucky to live in a smallish city with a very low crime rate and comparitavly few homeless people... although the shelters are always too full. But around here, everyone knows the homeless guys who live downtown. Natives of the town know their names, their stories, and where they beg. I give money or food to them. except one guy. There is this one guy who bikes around my neighborhood. He broke into my garage to steal my bike. He was quite nice about it... carefully turned the lawnmower on it's side, careful not to scratch my husband's car, and chose my bike over my husband's presumably because it looked like the least-expesive one. I see him... riding on my bike... in my neighborhood. I wouldn't be so mad about it, would have chalked it up to helping out a real homeless guy, except gas prices are freaking high and I never go farther than 3 miles so no I have to save up for a new bike. Which is tough when you are shelling out so much for gas in the mean time. bah.

But I still give to the other guys. and I volunteer.

Sadie

While I agree with the majority of commenters that it's a true fucking shame that scam artists have made so many of us think twice before helping someone who professes a need, I agree with Angie more. Honestly, who the hell am I to dictate to a perfect stranger what should be done with the money I give them? Who the hell am I to decide for another person that they should have a Happy Meal from McDonalds instead of the pack of Camel Lights they really want? All I'm saying is, if you have that attitude, then don't give anything to beggars and your problem is solved: you didn't contribute to some "bum's" addiction. Good for you.

Me? I will put what I can afford to give into the hand of whomever asks, if I've got something to give. It's not up to me what they do with it, and I'll never feel like an asshole for snubbing someone who really needed help, as I stroll past with a $150 haircut.

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