The weather in my city (and the rest of the country, I’m sure) has been absolutely brutal lately. But while I, and everyone else I know, has been keeping safe from the cold at home during our days off from school, others are stuck outside with no place to go.
Yes, I’m talking about the homeless.
My city has a fairly large homeless population, a large percentage of which are mentally ill, drug addicts, or both. I see and interact with at least one homeless person walking home from from the bus stop and I always try to bring money to give them, especially to the homeless women I’ve met. Even if it’s just a couple of dollars—I don’t get a ton of allowance and there has to be enough to go around. But even I, in all of my selfishness and privelege and childish innocence, know that two dollars is not even close to enough.
There’s this homeless man who asks for change on my dad’s street. I don’t know much about him but I’ve seen him around a few times; he seems like a nice enough guy from my few interactions with him. He’s very soft-spoken and polite. He hadn’t asked us for any money, until tonight.
“Please,” he said, “could you spare something, anything? I’m so hungry and cold.”
Now, money is tight in general when it comes to my dad, so I honestly wasn’t expecting him to open up his wallet. I, in the meantime, was busy trying to remember if I had any cash on my person, but was about to regretfully say that no, sorry, I didn’t have anything on me at the moment. But then my dad reached into his wallet and my heart warmed as my dad pressed into the homeless man’s hand a—
My immediate thought was “What the hell is the man going to do with twenty-five cents?!”
The look of dejection on the man’s face was absolutely palpable. We were preparing to cross the street back to my dad’s apartment building when I felt it in the pocket of my North Face jacket. A five dollar bill.
There was a split-second moment of decision. I wouldn’t even call it a decision, really. I just kind of did it on impulse.
“Wait!” I called out as the man began to walk away. “Here you go!”
I pressed the bill into his hand and watched his eyes light up, if only for a second. “Thank you!” he yelled as we walked away. “And happy New Year!”
“You, too!” I answered.
Now, I’m not going to act like some angel for giving a homeless man five dollars. Even as I handed the money to him I was well aware of the fact that while it’s something, it’s certainly not nearly enough. But at least it’s more than 25 cents.
As we were walking up the stairwell of my dad’s building, I told him that I gave the homeless man five dollars. There was something in my dad’s face I don’t know if I’ve ever seen before. It was almost like shame, but angrier.
“Why would you go and do that, Sophia?”
I’m not proud to say, my immediate reaction was to blow up at him. “It’s not like he’s going to go and buy heroin with five dollars, Dad!”
“Well, he seemed pretty fucking happy when he wished you a happy New Year!”
“Yes, dad. If I were homeless with no money, I think I’d be pretty happy to have money for food, too!”
We went back and forth like that for a while until both of us realized it was an unwinnable argument.
I remember the first time I encountered a homeless person, a young woman, by myself with no adult there to protect me. It was the September of this school year, actually. Not very long ago. The young woman very kindly and politely asked me for cash.
I had a few dollars on me, and I was completely prepared not to give it to her. I didn’t know what she was going to use it to pay for! But I grew up watching my grandma, whenever she got the chance, giving money to the homeless people we passed by on the street. She treated them like, you know, people.
So I gave the woman what little cash I had on me and she sent me on my way. When I returned home, I was visibly distraught.
“What if she spends it on drugs!” I said to my loving and patient mother.
My mom, with a sad and kind look in her eyes, explained it to me. “Honey, if she really does need money that bad to spend on drugs, then she needs them just as much as she needs food. So whatever she spends it on, you’re helping that woman survive.”
My mom went on to say that I should of course form my own opinions about giving money to the homeless, but that she would advise me to help out in any way I can.
I still don’t really know what my opinion on the whole situation is. But my opinion doesn’t really matter when the possible survival of others is at stake—it’s not my place to keep something they need from them, if I am able to provide it.
I haven’t seen the woman since, but I hope she’s alright. I wonder if I will ever again see the man whom I gave money to tonight.
I wonder if, in some way, I managed to help them. I hope so.