My first impulse was to turn away.
I know that doesn’t make me sound like a very nice person, but if I’m going to tell the story, I have to tell the truth.
I had just pulled into the grocery store parking lot with my son, who was 3 or 4 at the time. At that age he was quite a handful, and my shopping list was long. So the man in tattered clothes going through the parking lot in a wheelchair asking for money wasn’t a priority for me. In fact, I kind of wondered: Was his wheelchair necessary, or was it just part of the gig? In any case, I headed into the store, son in tow.
As we were leaving the checkout counter, Alex saw the row of machines that will sell you plastic balls and bracelets and such things for 50 cents or so. By then, the man from the parking lot was up front, too, scooping coins into the machine that magically transforms them into dollar bills.
“I want a ball!” Alex called out, running over to the machines. Impatiently I said, “Alex, you don’t need that, and besides, I don’t have any change.” At that, the man turned to us and, with coins in his outstretched arm, said “Do you need some money?”
I mumbled something like, “Thanks, but he doesn’t need these things,” and we went on our way. To this day, I wish I would have accepted a few coins from him and let Alex buy something. Sometimes it’s a gift to let someone give to you, after all.
Then about two years ago I was working in downtown Tacoma and stopped at a cash machine on my way to work. As I jumped back into my car, which was parked nearby, a man knocked on my passenger window. His clothes were rough, but something in his expression told me not to drive away. So I got out and said, “Yes?”
He said, “Ma’am, you left your card in the machine.” I thanked him profusely and said, “Do you want . . .” but he cut me off. “No, ma’am, glad to help.”
I drove up the hill to the parking lot at work. That day – and only that day – there was a man standing directly in front of my assigned spot. He was tall and had red hair, whereas my rescuer of moments earlier was short with dark hair, yet I could tell they were brothers. As soon as I got out of my car he said, “Ma’am, could you ...”
Before he could finish, I handed him the money that I would have given so readily just moments earlier.
“Oh, thank you, ma’am, bless you!” he said.
Did he know what a powerful sorcerer he was? For his blessings worked retroactively.
When things like this keep happening to you, it gets harder and harder not to see “the homeless,” or people in need, as ... well ... people. Recently I’ve started buying people lunch if there’s a restaurant nearby instead of handing them cash. I got one guy his requested hot dog and soda and then tried to talk him into a side salad also. Must be the mother in me.
But I still feel uneasy giving out cash. Dear reader, I imagine that you struggle with this issue at times, too. We want to think of ourselves as good people, so what do we do when someone who is obviously in need asks us for money?
I posed this question to David Curry, CEO of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, who advises against giving cash.
“Would you be comfortable,” he said, “knowing that the $20 you gave someone helped them buy the drug that they overdosed on?”
Instead, he recommends supporting one of the many organizations in the community that help people rebuild their lives. As to my compromise of buying lunch, he said that was a nice thing to do if you feel comfortable doing it.
But please don’t think that I’m trying to sound like I’m now the Mother Teresa of Pierce County. Far from it. I still walk by many more people than I help. And when I get into a big city like Seattle or Portland, there’s just no way I could help everyone who asks.
I am also conscious of my personal safety. You never know when someone is mentally ill in a dangerous way, or under the influence of some substance. But of course that’s true of your new neighbor or the guy in the next cubicle, too.
I wish I could recommend a quick and easy solution, but if there were one, I’m sure someone would have found it by now. And I can’t tell you what to do in every situation, because as you see, I’ve struggled to find an answer myself. But it’s cold out there, and it’s hungry, too. It seems like we need something. Something besides turning away.Catherine Forte is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page. She is an online instructor at Tacoma Community College and lives in Lakewood with her husband David and their 12-year-old son Alex. Email her at email@example.com.