Life Lessons In Odd Places

I’m a bleeding heart.  It’s no secret that I’ll do pretty much anything for a charitable cause I support – just ask my right calf and scalp.  However, I always hate asking people for money like when I’m tabling at conferences for the SSA or when I’m trying to squeeze every last gilded drop out of blog readers.  I’m just sure they’re annoyed as hell to be asked to part with their cash and that I’m bugging fifty people for every one who begrudgingly gives something, probably just to get me off their back.

However, I had an experience this morning that changed my opinion about that within about five seconds.

Homeless people have always been a conundrum for me.  I want to help, but I also don’t want to enable.  This is why, for a period in my life, when somebody on the street asked me for money I would decline to give them cash, but would offer to buy them food instead.  To my surprise, almost universally, they rejected food and moved on to ask the next person for money.  Eventually I quit offering.

This morning I violated my PJ-only weekend pledge by throwing on a shirt long enough to go replenish my supply of Raisin Bran Crunch (that stuff is like sweet ambrosia).  On the way into the store, a homeless man sitting in the entryway made eye contact and approached me.  I was already halfway through telling him I don’t carry cash (which is true) when I realized he wasn’t asking me for money – he was asking for an apple.  I had to ask him to repeat himself, this time with me paying attention.  He repeated that he just wanted something for breakfast.  I told him I would go get him an apple.

I bought him a bag of groceries, mostly out of gratitude.  By the time I got outside he had been kicked off the property and I had to chase him down.  I handed him the sack and thanked him, which caused him to do the double take this time.  I thanked him for allowing me to help.  I never stopped wanting to personally do something small to help people in his situation, I just so seldom get a genuine opportunity to do so where I feel I’m not contributing to destructive behavior or reinforcing a lie.

On the way back to my car, I wondered how many others are out there who want to help feed the destitute, to spread secularism, or to keep music in the classrooms, or what have you.  How many times have I heard people tell me how strongly they wished their high school had been home to a Secular Student Alliance affiliate?  The answer is a lot.  Asking them to contribute to that cause isn’t nagging – it’s affording them an opportunity to help.  It’s giving them the chance to make a difference that many of them are wanting and waiting to make.

It is truly strange and more than a little humanizing how you learn things in the oddest ways sometimes.

Update and pics from #AACon15. MST3K cast members were at my talk.
PERSONAL: The corrupting power of fame and my love for my commenters.
PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
PERSONAL: Sorry to disappoint you, Julian.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • matt
  • Alix

    ;_____; BRB I’m crying at all of the kindness. Thank you for helping him, JT. That was the nicest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

  • Adam Lee

    I’ve also had the experience of offering to buy a homeless person food and being refused. It actually happened to me twice within the first few days after I moved to New York City for grad school.

    The dilemma for me is that I want to help, but there’s no way to tell the genuinely needy people from the scam artists, at least not in the space of a random meeting on the street. Barring extraordinary circumstances, I almost never give to people who are panhandling in public. I’d rather give to a charity where I have some assurance of how the money will be spent.

  • SamG

    I once saw a man with a ‘will work for food’ sign on my way into a sub shop. As I ordered I thought ‘I’ll help that guy’. I bought him a sandwich and a drink. I took it too him and he promptly put both into the back of an expensive pick-up truck. I was driving a small, inexpensive commuter car at the time. I felt duped.

    We give to food banks and shelters now. That way we know (or hope we know) that our money isn’t wasted.

    I rarely give in and give cash to someone on the street. I have to say though, that being approached by someone with kids that look to be without/suffering will often get me to open my wallet and give what little cash I carry.

  • guest

    I am doing the same, I offer food. or coffee. I am a student, I can’t help all the homeless people we have here in Vancouver. And I’ve had the same problem, people not appreciating me offering food. (what do they want? booze? cigarettes? drugs? do they need money for the overnight shelter?)

  • Q

    My family and I used to drive around Phoenix with pre-made sandwiches. They never turned those down if you already have them in-hand.

  • lordshipmayhem

    I’ve also experienced both those who only want the money, and those who happily accept food.

    Toronto has also suffered from people like the shaky lady.

  • Crommunist

    You know he’s just going to trade those groceries in for crack at the Crack-for-Snacks Emporium(tm). Gosh, JT… don’t you know ANY stereotypes?