One night a few weeks ago, I was driving down Chambers street in Manhattan toward the Brooklyn Bridge, when a disheveled old man in a wheelchair, who was probably homeless, ambled out into the middle of the road.
I slowed the vehicle, trying my best not to hit him, steered to his right side, then stopped.
I clicked the little button that saves me the extraneous effort it takes to roll down the window, then reached into my pocket. I pulled out three dollars that were crumbled up in there for god knows how long, and handed them over.
“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you just drove right by,” said the old man, smiling. “Thank you so much for stopping. God bless you and have a good night.”
I nodded my welcome, raised the window and cranked the volume on the car stereo. Then I sped onto the Brooklyn Bridge on my way back to my home in Staten Island. Forty-five minutes later, after sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, plus paying a whopping $15 toll to cross the Verrazano Bridge, I walked into my cozy little apartment.
I quickly stripped off my multiple layers of clothes, took a steaming hot shower, then had a generously-portioned late night snack. I slid into my warm bed, selected some newly-released movie I can’t even remember from the millions available to me via the on-demand streaming services I pay a miniscule monthly fee to access, and fell into a deep, restful sleep for eight hours.
Life was good.
I’m not a fortunate son — compared to many New Yorkers these days, I’m not very fortunate at all — but I am more fortunate than many.
My parents, divorced, both worked civil service jobs for the City of New York, and after moving from South Brooklyn at an early age, I was raised in a working class, mixed-race neighborhood in the middle of Staten Island.
My mother was a teacher before she died of cancer, and my father, though he’s eligible for retirement, still commutes three hours a day to and from his job with the Human Resources Administration. Neither of my parents had money to spare, but because I watched them spend their lives helping others, I was brought up to not turn a blind eye to someone desperately in need.
So, when I can, I give money to homeless people. If they’re asking for it on the street, and the conditions are right (ex: I have a few extra dollars on me, plus the time to stop), I will reach into my pocket, just as I did that night weeks ago, and give someone what I can spare.
Sometimes it’s a few dollars, sometimes it’s just some change. Sometimes I walk right by without stopping. Sometimes I tell them I only have a few dollars myself, and I can’t spare it at the moment.
It’s always very situational. There is no overarching edict like “I MUST GIVE MONEY TO ALL HOMELESS PEOPLE.” When asked, I make a quick judgement call — will they use this in a decent way? — and proceed accordingly.
What is a semi-decent way? I don’t know. I would assume that if a person looks like they might actually buy something to eat with the money, or if they might use it for something else they need — like an I.D., which they might be required to have in order to check into a shelter — then I’m all in.
But truthfully, it doesn’t matter what the hell they’re using the money for. People get so hung up on this, playing God on a street corner.
“I’m enabling them,” they think.
That’s possible, but I don’t really know what the big deal is. We’re all so righteous and judgmental.
“They’re going to buy a drink with it!” says some uptight yuppie, probably on their way to a bar where they, themself, will drink too much.
If a homeless person wants to buy a drink with my measly dollar — especially in New York, where a dollar doesn’t get you much — let them buy a drink with it. Who cares. If it makes their life a little easier, I’m all for it.
Some would argue that it’s better to give to organizations who will make sure that my charitable donations are used the right way. They’re probably right, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. If you can do it, do it.
Presently, I do not give money to homeless people through a charity, because helping the homeless is not necessarily an overarching life goal for me. I just find it unreasonable to tell a person to go screw themselves right there in the street, when I know in my heart I can spare a dollar or two.
But with charities, it’s not an either/or situation. One can hand a panhandler some change and I can give money to a charity, too. The big difference is that when I give someone money in the street, I actually have the experience of physically seeing with my own eyes what being destitute, down and out and in-need really means. And I can see what effect handing that cash to them has, almost immediately.
If I give money to a charity, I have no idea what the hell is happening with it. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies are notoriously shady and mismanaged. If you think your money is trickling down to that guy who keeps asking you for cash on your way to work, you are sorely mistaken.
The vibe on the street amongst the young, elite, and successful in New York these days is that every man/woman has a choice to make for themselves. Even the homeless. That’s to say that if the poor, the needy, the downtrodden want to rise up, get off the street and become productive members of society, they just need to do it.
What a crock of shit that is.
So ultimately I give money to homeless people not out of any extraordinary internal need to be charitable, but rather, the understanding that not all people are born equal in this world, and not everyone gets a fair shake. There is systematic poverty — as well as mental illness and other assorted issues — that afflicts millions of people in the United States and no amount of positive thinking, prayer, or half-baked government assistance programs will ever do much to change that. These people are the have-nots, and likely, they will always be that way. Their American Dream, nothing more than a nightmare.
Maybe my dollar or two won’t help them much. I doubt it will. But it’s not troubling me to give it if I can. In the grand largess of what my life will be and all the money I will spend during the course of it, will a few dollars really matter to me? That’s highly unlikely.
Originally published at www.businessinsider.com on October 28, 2014.