Do you freely give to the homeless? Now I do. But it wasn’t always this way. It used to depend on their looks, their sign or their story.
Like one lady I met at Starbucks. She sat uncomfortably in one of those brown snuggly leather chairs. I decided to join her. I couldn’t quite tell if she was homeless, but she was definitely without permanence. Her tattered tights revealed bruised legs. Layers of shirts and sweaters and fingerless gloves were too much clothing for the Florida June day. Two reusable bags rested at her feet. She pulled a newspaper out of one and began reading.
I’m not sure how the conversation began. But we had one. She recounted her days as a New York teacher. She was visiting her daughter at a nearby hospital. Her other daughter lived with her sister in Clay county, about 35 miles west. They don’t talk. I removed and replaced my ear buds each time she mentioned a new topic. By the end of it, she asked me for a dollar. I gave her three.
Her story was believable and I happened to have had three dollars.
There’s another guy I see everywhere. Gas station. Publix. ABC liquor store. His long, dirty blonde hair hangs from his scalp. His unkempt beard begs to be shaved. He wears what used to be white sneakers.
“Can you spare some change for me and my family?”
There’s no family in sight. Ever. It’s an unbelievable story. So I usually say no and continue pumping my gas. Except, this one time. This one time was different. I spotted him at a Wendy’s one fall, Saturday night. The baseball cap was a new addition. It covered most of his stringy hair. He stood in the parking lot talking to a white pickup’s driver.
“That’s old boy that we see all the time.”
“No. I don’t think that’s him,” my husband replied.
“Yeah. That’s him.”
By the time I pulled around to the drive-thru line, the truck was gone and he paced back and forth while talking on a cell phone. It was him.
“What’s he doing on a cell phone? Where did he get it from?” I asked out loud, to no one in particular. He slipped the phone in his pants pocket and started begging at the back of the car line. He slowly made his way to us. Just as I pulled up to the speaker, he walked around and stood in front of the menu.
“’Scuse me ma’am. I was wondering if you would buy me and my family something to eat?”
“I won’t buy your family anything. But I’ll get you something.”
His eyes bulged in disbelief. I’m not sure if he was surprised that I said yes or taken aback that I said no to food for his “family.” Either way, he took one full step back so he could view the menu better and began rubbing his hands.
“Uuummm, can I get a number seven with just meat and cheese and a vanilla frosty instead of the drink?”
My youngest daughter burst into laughter. I held my lips tightly closed so as not to join in. We were both thinking the same thing. What a picky homeless person. I placed a separate order for his food, and then switched from judgmental to compassionate. “Hey, just cause he’s homeless doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want a treat.”
He walked to the other side of the parking lot, sat down on the sidewalk and pulled out his cell phone. We watched.
“Who is he talking to?” My youngest daughter asked.
I shifted back to judgmental.
“Who knows? This is how you know he doesn’t have a family. Who would order food just for himself if he really had a family?”
“Obviously,” my oldest replied in that teenagey know-it-all kind of way. “Thought we already established that he was lying about the family?”
Eventually his food came. I handed it to him and he thanked and blessed me.
He left the Wendy’s parking lot, eating one fry at a time. He headed down the sidewalk to somewhere else. Where? I have no idea. But do I need to know? Is he homeless? I’m not quite sure. I know that something is wrong because he’s always on the street panhandling. According to the Council on Homelessness Report, there are at least 1,801 more transients like him in Duval County. I couldn’t possibly get to know each of them to learn if they’re worthy of $1.00. And I don’t have to. I’ve dropped the judgment when it comes to this population. If I have cash, then I hand it to the person. Their stories, signs or situations are no longer prerequisites. They don’t need to earn my money.
Cover photo courtesy of Jeremy Brooks via Flickr