In New York and other cities, we have become conditioned to largely ignore homeless people. Sometimes, not even acknowledging their requests. Exceptions are made. For example, when someone performs a song or a dance we may reward their obvious talent with a dollar or two, perhaps rationalizing this as a fair exchange.
Recently, I’ve seen several instances where a homeless person asked for either food or money so they could buy food. In all cases, no one offered cash, but several reached into their bags and shared nutrition bars, yogurt, and even a sandwich.
Why the generosity with food but not dollars? Especially considering that the food was often more expensive than what a typical cash donation might be.
One hypothesis is that we don’t trust them to do “what’s right” with the money. Instead of getting food, we assume they will waste it on drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. This video social experiment suggests that in real life scenarios that is seldom the case.
Case in point, recently, I was walking back to my hotel after dinner in San Francisco, passing numerous homeless people along the way. As I was about to walk into my hotel, a homeless man asked me for a dollar so he could get a sandwich at the Arby’s next door. Instead of giving him the dollar, I asked if he would come inside the Arby’s with me where I proceeded to buy him a full meal. After I paid for the meal, he thanked me and I wished him a good night. Feeling good about my generosity, I told my wife and young kids this story when I returned home the next day.
As the kids took in one lesson about giving, my wife quickly taught me a more important one when she asked, “What was his name?”
Embarrassingly, I had not bothered to ask. And therein lies the real problem.
While we may sometimes give food or money, we seldom give of ourselves or give the benefit of the doubt. Rarely pausing to consider our shared humanity and wonder how someone’s son or daughter, brother, sister or friend ended up here. In doing so, it is not only them that we make less human, but also ourselves.
I know we can’t stop and help every stranger we pass on the street, but can we connect with at least one? It may be a granola bar from your bag, the trust in giving them an unsolicited dollar, or simply acknowledging their presence with eye contact — a hello or maybe even asking their name.
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