I get anxious right before passing a desperate person on the street knowing I am about to get asked for something. I always acknowledge them with a “good day” type of greeting and often give them a dollar or take them for a meal. After the encounter, I feel guilty while knowing there is little more I can do at the moment. I want to help more than I am able.
I’m more inclined to buy this person a meal than to give them money. Every so often, I eat with them: an inexpensive meal—such as two slices of pizza, desert, and a drink — is around ten-twelve dollars. I rarely have the time to do this. It is also more expensive than I can handle. Given the number of such people I come across, I would spend fifty to sixty dollars a day.
I can’t imagine what they think of me as we chat. What do they experience when hearing the jingle of my keys when I reach for a dollar? (When walking on crowded streets, I carry my wallet and keys in the same front pocket.) Or when I am just jingling them out of nervousness. Does the jingle remind them of being locked out of our community? These are people without keys to any place. Does the jingle create pain, reminding them they are barred from everywhere, while I have access to so many places with locks? I have plenty of keys, so many I don’t bring all of them.
As ready as I am for such encounters, I am never ready for them. When rushing, I would rather not stop for a quick meet and greet, but I do while trying to hide the feeling of being interrupted by a stranger when I’m already late to where I need to be. I used to wonder how to prepare myself for these moments, especially when my time has been spent on other things. How do I ready myself for the interrupting approach of a stranger living in a disaster?
I saw a human angel ready for such a moment about a month ago. She was walking ahead of me when a person, in hardship, asked her for money or a meal. She smiled and replied, “hi, I will help you out with an energy bar.” She reached into her bag and then handed him one. Genius! I can do that. I went out and bought two boxes of Kind bars and a lot of small bottled water. It took me a bit to pick up on the irony of grabbing Kind bars…I picked them because they’re tasty.
When I walk our dogs, which is five times a day, I now carry a satchel filled with Kind bars and water. I give out about three to five a day. I no longer experience the discomfort I once felt when encountering houseless people. Likewise, I’m excited to see them because I have something for them. Some have become pals, and we catch up on seeing each other. Talking to them is perhaps just as important as the Kind bar. Imagine what it’s like to be ignored by most individuals. It is unkind to turn our faces away to avoid engaging a person reduced to begging for help. To turn from them or ignore them most shows a chic nihilism toward hardship. It is to make them strange.
We Jews are told to always remember to treat the stranger in our midst like one of ourselves, for we were once strangers in a foreign land.
Pay forward the insightful woman’s gesture. You will make new good friends while making the stranger in your midst feel your hospitality. Likewise, remember, if we all do this, all it took was for one woman to start a social movement to help those in need of our help. Turn a Kind bar into a kind social gesture. You not only serve someone by feeding them, you also give them a momentary, but loving, felt sense of human dignity.