The lanky, semi-disheveled guy sifting through the Dumpster caught my eye. “Hey man, don’t suppose you could help me out?” he said half-heartedly. We talked for maybe 10 seconds while I pulled out my wallet and gave him $2.
What he did next truly surprised me.
I don’t normally do this
I walked 30 minutes to work through downtown Salt Lake City when I first moved to Utah 11 years ago, right past the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ Temple Square. Every day I would pass the same three people: A man with a three-legged dog and holding a sign that said he was a homeless Vietnam veteran in need of food for him and his dog; an obese man with an oxygen tank and a dozen empty pill bottles set up in a line on a concrete flowerbox, requesting help to pay for his medicine (God bless), and a woman with a suitcase who needed money to find her and her kids a place to stay. Every weekday, they staked out the same spot near the temple. This was my first exposure to professional panhandlers.
Look, I’m all for helping out people in need. But if you’ve got the time and energy to get out and hustle people for money on the street every single workday, you’ve got a job. They easily put in a full work week in the hot sun, and I assume they did pretty well. A coworker told me a taxi driver he knew used to drive one of these professional panhandlers home every night, to a decent home in the suburbs. I decided that the people who had a shtick — usually a well-rehearsed story with props to go along — were not people I was going to help out.
One day in college a man asked me for $2.16 because his car was out of gas and he needed to go pick up his daughter. A few weeks later he came by again, asking for the same amount with the same story. A couple of days later he was sitting two booths over from me at a 24-hour diner, chatting up the waitress. It was after 1 a.m., I’d had a bit of liquid courage, and something about their conversation gave me an opening. I asked him why he always needed exactly $2.16. He bellowed a laugh and said, “Oh, you caught me!” The waitress laughed along and said, “That’s how much his bottle of vodka costs with tax!”
But I’m not heartless, I’m cautious
In the past few years, Salt Lake City has gone from a model city for taking care of the homeless to overwhelmed by their numbers. There is a very different vibe coming from the homeless people you encounter on the street these days.
It’s not that I don’t help out people in need. I just don’t want to be a sucker. I evaluate the signals people are giving off before I open my wallet. When I saw someone rummaging through a trash can and looking through McDonald’s bags, I gave him my lunch.
Which brings me back to the man I encountered while walking home from work.
When I saw him digging through the trash, looking for what I’m not entirely sure, I knew this was someone I would help. As I handed him $2, he asked whether I had a cigarette. I didn’t, but wished him luck and told him to have a good night.
I turned and kept walking. Then 30 seconds later, I heard a voice calling “Gentleman in the red jacket!” The man was running after me.
“I just wanted to say thank you for actually talking to me,” he said. “I wanted to give you something. I spent the last five months in Saskatoon, up in Canada.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin.
“Have you seen one of these? It’s a loonie. Here, I want you to have it. It’s a souvenir.”
We wished each other a good evening and parted ways.
What just happened?
In my shallow little mind, I thought giving this guy a couple bucks was the small but meaningful part of that exchange. To him, just that simple conversation where I acknowledged him as another human being, even in a friendly but fleeting way, was so important that he felt compelled to give me maybe the only thing of any significance he had on him.
It wasn’t the homeless man who walked away richer; it was me.
It doesn’t cost anything to look someone in the eye, smile, and be friendly. There’s no need to judge whether someone is a hustler to just be nice and say hello. And the most valuable thing we can do for each other doesn’t involve the exchange of money. It’s simply to acknowledge one another as human beings, whatever our situation.