Friday, November 18, 2011

Respect and reward

Downtown Santa Monica
I know a woman who works in a Santa Monica office. Santa Monica has been jokingly called "the home of the homeless" by comic Harry Shearer, because of the city's policies for homeless people - described by some as compassionate, others as enabling.

My friend often works late in her office, finding evenings a quiet time to catch up on her "To Do" list. It's not unusual for her to be the last person out of the building, her car the last one in the parking lot.  It's also not unusual for there to be someone camped outside on cold nights when she lets herself out each evening.

One of these campers was a woman who liked the relative safety of the sheltered loading dock. As the months went on, my friend grew used to her, first offering a brief "good night," then exchanging first names. I don't know how much they actually spoke - my friend is a shy woman, even fearful at times, not one to put herself forward.  But she let the woman sleep unbothered behind her building.

She had a friend who worked at the public library, and learned that the homeless woman spent her days there, pestering the librarians for help with reference materials. After several months without further change or incident, the homeless woman just disappeared.
Palisades Park, Santa Monica
My friend's life went on unchanged. Other homeless people camped out near the building, in the park or on the beach, some panhandled on the sidewalks during the day; others raged at the bus-stop. It is Santa Monica, after all.

Two or three years later, a woman came to my friend's office and asked for her by name. It took a moment for my friend to recognize the homeless woman. I don't know her story, so I can't tell you, but counseling, treatment, mentoring and assistance had changed her circumstances. She now had a home, and a job, and no longer took drugs. 

"I just wanted to stop by and thank you," she told my friend, "for your kindness, and because you treated me like a normal person even though I was sleeping outside your door."

Almost every morning when I drive to work, there's a panhandler with a cardboard sign standing on the concrete divider at the intersection of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. Actually, there are several regular panhandlers, each at a different time or day of the week. There's the one whose sign says "Even a Smile Helps." There's another whose sign begs Topanga commuters for a joint - talk about targeting your market demographic. There's a fellow with a dog; a woman claiming to need bus fare home; a man in a wheelchair with an American flag. Sometimes, you see one sitting on the side of the road under the trees, as though taking a break or waiting for a shift change.

Some drivers give money or a cigarette, a can of soda, some food. I don't give - I find it difficult even to give eye contact.

The other day I read this story at Detroitblog - "Ain't too proud to beg."  The author speaks with Detroit panhandlers, treating them like normal people, and lets them tell their stories.
"They've classified those who refuse to give too. The drivers who fake a phone call to avoid being engaged. The ones who stare nervously ahead, gripping the wheel. The door lockers. Those who nod and smile but keep the window rolled up. And the cruel ones who play tricks, yell insults or throw things...."
It's made me think. What does it say about my lack of generosity that I can barely meet someone's eyes with mine, let along give the smile requested on the sign? 

I have to marvel at the compassion my timid friend possesses, that a homeless woman would return years later to thank her for treating her with respect.

Share your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Years ago I was waiting at a stop sign at a grocery store parking lot. A woman who I had seen ringing the Salvation Army Bell when I went in to do my shopping knocked on my window. I rolled down my window and she asked me if I knew where the bus stop was, I told her it was about a mile away. She asked me if I knew what it would cost to go downtown, I didn't know I told her. She asked if I thought it would be more than a dollar, because that was all she had. I didn't know. I started to roll up my window she began to walk away. Instead of driving off, I called her back and gave her the $5 in change I had in my ash tray. She thanked me.
I turned left she walked to the right on the way to the bus stop. As I drove home, I felt guilty because I hadn't driven
her to the bus stop. I almost turned around, but I didn't. It
was easy to give her the money but I couldn't give her a
ride. Anyway, since then, I try to give something whenever I
can and I've also given rides to a few women on occasion.
I may be foolish, but I think, what is a few dollars to me, a few extra miles? That lady changed how I look at pan handlers. Who am I to judge? Albug

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I find it difficult even to give eye contact.

This due to your physical space and comfortableness with others in that zone, Aunt Snow.

I've gone this way and that with panhandlers. Generally, I'm an easy mark, but occasionally I kick myself for being a sucker.

E.g., one time I hung around listening to some long story that led me to handing over $20...sad trombone when I heard the exact same intricate b.s. from some other person a week or so later.

Anyways, for the most part I feel better for helping people who clearly need it. But it's easier for me, as a larger (than I would like, at this point!) person who grew up in D.C., to do so.


One of my daughter's favorites down your way is a chap that provides Disney trivia on his sign. Because of his creativity and entertainment value, she rolled down her window and helped his cause.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

It's made me think. What does it say about my lack of generosity that I can barely meet someone's eyes with mine, let along give the smile requested on the sign?

I wouldn't chalk it up to lack of generosity- you don't know what any particular person will be spending the money on, you could be feeding an addiction.

The one guy I'd always give money to was the "joke man" on McDougal St- I considered him a performer, not a panhandler. He had a guarantee, if he couldn't tell you a joke you'd never heard, he'd pay you.

The story about your friend is remarkable- just treating someone with dignity can be life-altering.

Glennis said...

But, BBBB, my point was - I am NOT giving someone money to feed an addiction. So why can't I give him at least the acknowledgement that we are fellow humans by making eye contact?

I don't know the answer.

Anonymous said...

I have the same difficulty with facing the homeless and needy people I occasionally meet on the streets. I think the causes for my discomfort stem from my own resistance to asking people for help; the guilt I feel for having so much when others have so little; and my tendency to be critical and judgmental. I see other people who handle these situations with ease but I just fumble around not knowing what to do. My social graces are lacking in the best of circumstances and they totally escape me in the worst. Therefore,my solution is to do my best to avoid any encounter altogether. In this, I am apparently not alone.

pinkkandy said...

Well, I can hardly believe it is Thanksgiving already. Seems like we just planted our flowers...I am so very thankful for many ways God has blessed me...I give HIM all the Glory!I ask for many blessings to come your way through this holiday season!

Tara (there's only one) said...

In Native American culture, when people ask, you give. It's that simple. So panhandlers and eye contact have never been a concern for me. The guiding principle is that generosity is a social good. Or as St. Paul remarked, "Hilarem enim datorem diligit Deus."

Rather than worrying about why you don't make eye contact, perhaps the more constructive action is to start doing so.

ilyanna said...

I think we look away in order to avoid obligation. I jokingly call it liberal guilt, but my personal ethics tell me that I am responsible for my fellow human beings. As an adult, I believe that gives me the right to maintain order with other people's children. But that also obliges me to help fellow adults in need. If I don't "see" someone, I don't have to help. So, I look away. However, I lived in Washington DC when I was in college. Being broke, I was freed from that sense of obligation -- there was nothing I could do. That meant I could make eye contact and honestly say that I was sorry - I didn't have anything to give. I learned then that -- even though I was young and white and relatively wealthy (I WAS in college after all, and had a job) -- the act of making eye contact and treating these "untouchables" as real people was far more important that anonymously tossing money their way. I can't tell you how many times a truly scary homeless person would sincerely bless me after I spoke, and then turn and scream invectives at the bashful person who looked away.

Anonymous said...

This is a heart-warming and tear-jerking story (and I mean that in a nice way). It's also convicting. I'm with you, Aunt Snow. I'm an avoider.
I've been burned in the past by sob stories that were just given to get me to give (from what little I had) so the guy could buy cheap booze. I'm jaded.
I don't want to be jaded. I want to be generous. It's hard to change from the inside. As a person who tries to follow Jesus, I *should* be changing from the inside.

I sometimes attend an evening worship on Sunday nights. A native American couple has been coming, too, to come in out of the cold, and (I hope) also worship, and to stay for the fellowship meal afterward. The first time we were there together, I felt awkward. Yet here with us were people truly living out there faith, making them feel welcome, sitting with them, talking to them... while I sat with my little family.
Afterward, I found myself helping to wash the dishes with this woman. That felt good, just 2 human beings working side-by-side. I learned her first name, that she lived on the streets, that she had no coat.
I didn't have mine with me that night, but it bothered me -- would I have given it up for her? Finally, I determined that I would... and went with that intention last week. She was there, but she had managed to get a coat by then. I still have mine.

The thing is, there are people who team up, work opposing corners and panhandle as a regular job. But I know there are often circumstances like the ones you named -- drugs, need of counseling, etc.-- that keep them from holding down a "real" job.

A smile should be painless... what holds us back? Perhaps if we acknowledge the personhood of another, we also have to face that they are fellow human beings with feelings, too. Again, I don't know. But I'm struggling with this alongside of you.

Anonymous said...

Ilyanna said something that really stuck: "the act of making eye contact and treating these "untouchables" as real people was far more important that anonymously tossing money their way."

That is what a group from our church in Virginia did every month -- they took some food, clothing supplies, small helpful items like toothpaste and toothbrushes, but mostly, they spent time talking to the homeless people in Washington, DC, giving them the gift of treating them as human beings of worth, listening to them, learning their names.

I never went... always an excuse... but those who went often became repeat visitors because of the great lessons they learned about themselves and others.

Jen on the Edge said...

I blogged about this over the summer: If I'm walking by, I tend to make eye contact and say hi, but not give money. If I'm driving and someone is at an intersection, I might or might not make eye contact and acknowledge them.