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Homeless: An Introduction

I’m in Chicago on a business trip and as my customer and I are walking from our hotel to a local restaurant, he noticed that I handed a dollar to every person with his or her hand out. We had a nice dinner, and I made sure I had enough singles for the walk back, all told, I must have given away no more than ten dollars. He asked me, “how can you give money to every person you pass by?” I didn’t miss a beat, and asked in response, “how can you walk by so many people asking for money and not reach into your pocket once?”

Years later I heard this anecdote which reminded me of my own story above. Two men of the cloth (I don’t recall the religion) are walking in an area where there are many homeless asking for money. One man gives to everyone with his hand out, the other doesn’t give at all. The non-giver says, “I don’t give to people on the street, I only donate through the soup kitchens and institutions, as I’m afraid that someone I give money to on the street will use it for alcohol.”  The giver responds, “I know that many I give to will buy alcohol or drugs, but I give to everyone with his hand out in the hope than one person will spend the money on food.”

I don’t kid myself, I know that giving away a dollar here and there probably makes me feel good more than it helps the guy on the street. On the other hand, symbolism can go a long way, and I think there’s much to be said for the act of not walking by someone in need when you can help a bit.

In an endeavor unrelated to this blog, I’ve spent some time on a board discussing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a system of paying people for relatively small, simple transactions. I met a writer who mentioned he had spent time being homeless, and we had some discussion on that topic. I invited him to share his story with my readers and soon after I received an article than ran over 4000 words.  It’s really an amazing story, one I look forward to sharing with you over the next eight weeks.

Next Week – The First Days

  • Anji July 18, 2011, 8:48 am

    It might be us one day.

    Looking forward to reading the rest

    Read and be read ExposeYourBlog!

  • JOE July 18, 2011, 8:59 am

    Anji – thanks for visiting. It’s a rare opportunity to get someone with this experience to share the way he did. It was long enough that I though the idea of a series made sense, every Monday till it’s done.

  • Weston July 18, 2011, 10:52 am

    I’m like the second man (non giver on the street) in your anecdote. I only have a limited amount of discretionary money. If I give it on the street to someone who might spend it on drugs or alcohol I’m just taking away that amount from someone who I know will get food and shelter.

    In all honesty, when I have given money on the street it is usually because other’s are watching and I want to impress them with what a good guy I am. When I donate to the shelter I feel that it is in a way a far higher form of charity since others do not see it and the recipient doesn’t even know where it came from.

  • Elle July 18, 2011, 11:05 am

    A Monday series relating this formerly homeless man’s story is a great idea. I think I am in pretty good shape financially mostly because of luck. Knowing it’s been mostly luck for me is what drives the little community service jobs I do now and then.

  • Anji July 18, 2011, 3:20 pm

    I was thinking about your post later. There’s nothing to stop your friend buying a sandwich or some fruit and giving them to homeless people. I remember reading somewhere that is some neighbourhoods they are easy victims if they have money on them.

  • JOE July 18, 2011, 6:07 pm

    Ken, it seems to me that you subscribe to Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity. For me, the couple hundred dollars I might hand out over a year is small compared to the organized charities I’m donating to. Thank you for visiting….

  • Don July 18, 2011, 8:01 pm

    Joe, I’m impressed by your actions and your comments to your client, and us here on the blog! Keep up the great work, and I hope no one stops you from doing it. I spent almost a year, kinda homeless in Fort Lauderdale FL walking, talking and living with the homeless there, and saw what they went through. Many would buy drink, cigs or drugs before they bought food, but when they needed the food to go any further they would spend any money they got on food. Often at least once a day would be food first.

    Keep up the great work!


  • JOE July 18, 2011, 10:49 pm

    Anji – the best posts are the one’s that get people coming back a few hours later, I appreciate that.
    On a recent New York City visit, we did just that, asked a guy if he’d like a sandwich. We then went across the street and bought it at a deli, but the cashier heard us talking and told us the guy will trade the sandwich for alcohol. When I went back out and handed it to him, I asked him to try it just to make sure he liked it. He thanked us and said he’d find a quite place to eat it, but wouldn’t open it in front of us. That doesn’t mean I wont keep trying.
    Years ago, I was in NYC on my own, and saw a regular, a homeless guy I’d seen many times. I asked him if he had eaten recently, and when he said no, I offered to take him into a Burger King. He said he wasn’t allowed. I told him I’d stay with him and drink a coffee while he ate. That worked. I told him to get what he wanted, and it was obvious he was trying to not overdo it. I upsized everything he ordered, and sat with him. Not all homeless will accept this offer, and no matter how kind we try to be, there’s not always the time. On the business trip, we had reservations at a fancy (suit and tie) restaurant.
    This past winter’s trip, we brought earmuffs. No one on the street will say ‘no’ to a pair of earmuffs when it’s cold out.

  • Tony July 19, 2011, 10:51 pm

    Well, some people need vodka more than food. I always give whenever asked. There are plenty of homeless in Chicago these days – streets, subways, under the bridges. When I see those folks, I don’t feel I have a right to moralize or judge them.


  • JOE July 19, 2011, 10:59 pm

    Great attitude, I appreciate your comment.

  • buck July 22, 2011, 7:11 pm

    I remember a many years back when a Pgh. newstation followed a ” homeless person”, who came to the city parked his older Jeep Cherokee in the permit parking area, and sat on the street for 5 hours as a “homeless person”. After talking with the man and then blowing his cover, it was estimated he was making over $60,000 tax free which repulsed many, including myself. I will only contribute to a charity that I can trust, and see the difference they make.

  • JOE July 22, 2011, 10:50 pm

    I understand. And I don’t criticize those who prefer to walk by.

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