Kyle and I stepped out of a popular new burger joint on Friday evening after a nice date, checking to see if the rain had resumed while we ate.
Realizing someone must be addressing Kyle on the otherwise deserted street, we turned around to see the speaker standing a few yards down the sidewalk from the entrance to the restaurant. He was a tall man in his 30s with both his hands stuffed in his sweatshirt.
Speaking in a loud, monotone voice with unfocused eyes, he announced, “I’m not going to rob you. I just need some money to get home. I’m out on parole now. I need $17 but I’ll take whatever you can give me.”
Slightly taken aback by his icebreaker but not wanting to refuse to help him, Kyle pulled out his wallet, saying, “Let me see what I have…”
Immediately the distance between the man and us disappeared and he was very close to Kyle, saying that he appreciated the help getting home. I was standing behind Kyle’s back. I knew Kyle was looking for a five dollar bill, which is the amount we had previously agreed to give to people who ask on the street. It took Kyle a few moments to ascertain that he didn’t have any fives, during which time the man got a good, close look at the contents of Kyle’s wallet, despite Kyle trying to hold it at a concealing angle.
When Kyle pulled out two one dollar bills and handed them to the man, the man became agitated and raised his voice. “I need $17 to get home, man! I can see you have a twenty right there, why can’t you give me that?!” Kyle tried to rebuff him, saying “This is what I can give you” but the man became more insistent and reached toward Kyle’s wallet to better examine the contents of the billfold. This all happened very quickly and with much volume and agitation.
The man didn’t seem to be taking “no” for an answer, so I leaned in to put my hand over the opening to Kyle’s wallet, loudly saying “Good luck to you, sir.” The man went one more round with Kyle verbally – he said “You take the two dollars and I’ll take the twenty” and Kyle said “This is all I can spare right now” – before giving up and perfunctorily thanking us. We quickly turned and walked toward our car. We didn’t speak to one another for a few blocks, hoping we weren’t being followed.
The whole exchange took just over a minute so there wasn’t much time to process what was happening in the moment. I didn’t feel particularly unsafe because we were standing directly in the light cast by the bustling restaurant we had just exited and I didn’t think he would try to mug us with so many people just a few feet away. But after we were away from the man’s presence, we realized he had never taken his left hand out of his sweatshirt and we felt more unsettled. The man clearly wasn’t all there mentally so he easily might have acted irrationally.
The whole incident left us troubled. Kyle really didn’t like how we handled it. He wished that we had asked the man’s name and talked with him and perhaps bought him some food. I thought we did as well as we could, given how aggressive the man was and how quickly the situation escalated. In my opinion, the man was really doing the whole homeless community in our city a disservice with his behavior. It made us feel much more reluctant to open our wallets to someone who asks in the first place, for fear of being harassed for more money than we are willing to give.
Lately, we have tried to be intentional about giving small amounts of money to people who ask and most of the time it’s a neutral or feel-good experience. We recently gave money and bought some food for one particular man who we encountered and spoke with on a few occasions. He also tried to upsell us, so to speak – when we brought him the food we purchased for him, he asked for money a few times in rapid succession, but we just cheerfully told him no and he seemed dejected but didn’t argue. We walked away from that interaction feeling like we did help him in a small way, and now we know his name and a bit about his life and can recognize him around town. It was a humanizing experience, from our point of view – unlike this one from Friday.
Yesterday, we made a $50 donation to the local homeless shelter that we give to once or twice a year (we volunteer occasionally at a different homeless shelter/soup kitchen). This isn’t the first time we’ve made a donation in response to an unsatisfying interaction with a homeless person. We hold the opinion that our money better helps the homeless when given through a shelter or other organization, though we sort of hedge our bet by also giving nominal amounts of cash directly to people who ask. People definitely come to different conclusions on this issue, but that’s where we are.
Our perception of this experience had nothing to do with the money involved. We obviously could have given this man $2 or $20 or $50 without it harming us in the least. But it seemed like he thought he had the right to whatever cash we had, which was a real turnoff. Not that the money is ours, either, but we have been appointed stewards of it so (I think) we can’t let ourselves be pushed around.
Have you ever had an unsettling interaction with a person asking for money (stranger, family member, or friend)? Have you ever been mugged or robbed? In what manner do you care for the homeless or poor in your city?
photo from Free Digital Photos