This morning I stopped at a convenient store with my two children and got a cup of coffee and a snack. There were three homeless people standing outside, one of whom had apparently just enough change to purchase a donut and was allowed to stand inside the store long enough to eat it, and I could tell he was eating it slowly to buy himself some time for warmth.
I'll be honest and tell you I used to have mixed emotions about the homeless. I think many of us do, but don't tell others. There's the wondering - does this person have a substance abuse problem, or did they do something to "cause" their homelessness? Are they lazy, and didn't try hard enough to get work before they were in the predicament? It's easy for us to say that to ourselves. Until now, aside from a few quarters in a hat here and there - I'd never considered helping anyone out other than what the church would ask for while I was there. I would say to myself, "oh, they'll probably spend it on booze and cigarettes anyway".
As I've gotten older I've learned to not pass judgment. Lately, I've been feeling much differently. When I see someone that appears to be homeless, I have an internal struggle about whether or not I should do something. I realize that there are a number of factors that would cause one to lose the roof over their head, and it probably wasn't one isolated issue. Many are mentally ill. Some may have been abused. And others, well - could have been someone just like me or my husband, someone that worked hard all his life, but then something happened. Maybe he lost his job or something, and just couldn't make it.
Particularly in this time in our economy, my family has felt the stress of financial burden. Perhaps this is why I felt compelled to do something spontaneous. Having children changes us, too. We become less self-centered. More empathetic. Maybe, on some subconscious level - I may have thought "what if that ever happened to me". What a horror it would be, with small children.
I sat in the car with my children and coffee in my nice warm SUV and watched the eldest of them, the one that had been standing inside with the donut. I'm not sure why I singled him out - except that intuitively I felt he looked the most sincere. He was older, too, and had a kind face. I guess I rationalized that the younger two might have more fight left in them and could still work given the opportunity so they'd be okay.
After a few minutes, I decided that it was time for me to quit thinking about it and just do something. All I had left on me was a $20 bill, because I don't carry much cash (as most of us don't). But I thought, If I don't do this now - I won't do it. I said to the kids, "Mama will be right back" and got out of the car (he was just a few feet in front of us). The strangest emotions overcame me. It was a mixture of fear, anxiety, sadness, guilt, and peace. He was only a few feet from my car, but I was worrying, what will I say to him? What if he wasn't homeless? Was I making an assumption based on his clothing that was incorrect? How embarrassing that could be. But I mustered up courage, and this is what came out:
"Excuse me, sir. I don't want to insult you. Do you have any money for yourself"?
He replied, "No". I nervously handed him my meager $20. "I said, please take this and get something for yourself". That's all I could get out. He said quietly,"thank you", without looking at me. Feeling a little awkward, I hurried back into the car. As I buckled my seatbelt, he was putting the $20 in a small front-pocket mesh wallet he had, and he looked up at me - right in the eyes, with a small wave, and a really grateful look in his eye - and this time he said thank you in a much more meaningful manner. It occurred to me at that moment that he must have felt as awkward as I did - having to take a $20 bill from a younger woman who could have been his daughter so he could eat. Men are born with pride, so to have to swallow it daily must be awful.
As I pulled away, my eyes welled up with tears. I felt peaceful, and so sad at the same time, I guess because I wished it could have been more, and for the guilt of having more than he. I struggled to compose myself so I could explain to my 3-1/2 year old what had just taken place. It seemed important for me to tell my children that not everyone has comfort like we do.
Three hours later as I type this I still am feeling melancholy. I certainly haven't done anything particularly special. Then again, maybe I did. Because if you are thinking to yourself "what difference will $5, $10 or $20 do in the big scheme of this man's life"? This is the answer: this man will have food for a week on that measly $20. And, if there is another person that comes along and does that in another few weeks - he will eat for another month. If 12 of us did it - he will exist for another year.. And then maybe, just maybe - something will come along and change for him - like a job, a person that can offer him more.
Most of all, with our measly few dollars - he has HOPE.
Moms, it have been one of our fathers. It could have been our husband. Our brother. Or worst ever - in thirty years - our child. That man had a mommy once too, I'm sure. So I implore you. If you are hesitating the next time - bite the bullet and just do it. Get past your self-consciousness and make that gesture, with whatever small thing you can do. Even if its $5. Its enough.