Years ago I directed a rehab home for men, as well as a separate home for women. We were always taught never to give any panhandler money. Pastor Justin told us of a story where he gave a homeless man several dollars only to find out he had died from some sort of a drunken accident.
One woman I helped was required to take classes for a prior court ordered judgment. I remember taking her to class, walking her inside the building, helping her sign in and I remember waiting until I saw her disappear into the classroom. I waited outside in the car until her class was over. She took forever to come out. I decided to look for her. There I found her, smoking a cigarette, so drunk she could hardly walk or speak! I was amazed and asked her how she got money to get drunk and smoke?! She said she just asked the people around for money. They easily and willingly gave her their spare dollars. I got back in the car feeling so defeated. She had relapsed, and it made me feel horrible. She failed her obligation to her classes, her community, herself and me, and I had to basically carry her back to the car and back home.
This is why I am highly conflicted when it comes to these things. Many of these men and women are running from a painful past and drinking is the only way they have learned to cope with their burdens and heartache. Another time I saw a woman with a sign that read “Hungry, Anything Helps,” so I gave her my plate of delicious garlic seasoned cheesy fries. I wasn’t quite ready to stop eating them. Plus I paid almost $10 for them at an event downtown. I handed her the plate. She tossed it aside without eating any of it.
Today’s experience was different. I was walking into the Dollar Tree store to get some fake flowers to make pens for my husband’s office. I saw a man sitting behind a fold up table drawing in a notebook. I walked past him and felt his energy. He seemed ashamed. His head hung low but his eyes looked up. I smiled and kept walking. I went inside, purchased some plastic and pretty sunflowers and left the store.
I decided to stop and talk with him. He was a chatty guy. He was childishly bubbly and had nice blue eyes. I’m sure not many stopped to talk to him. I told him I was a blogger and he was so excited to share his story and time with me. His name is Maiku. He is from Seattle. He seemed in bright spirits for his situation. I tried to read his sign. There were a lot of words.
He wasn’t the typical panhandler. He told me he lived with his aunt, and they were both without work. He said he applied at countless jobs, and often felt discriminated against. He sat in a wheelchair and that’s when I noticed he was missing a leg. He told me he had diabetes. It started with the loss of his toes. He said he did everything the doctors advised him to, but the infection spread and took half his leg. Diabetes not only took half his leg, but his entire livelihood, dignity, and fulfillment of life.
Before panhandling, Maiku enjoyed anime, sketch art, and loved truck driving. He seemed in great spirits for all that he had been through despite the continuous rejection. One thing Maiku said so genuinely that stuck out to me was, “Nobody wants to be out here begging. I don’t want to be out here, but many of us are forced into homelessness.” Maiku is trying to keep him and his aunt from homelessness while looking for jobs and for neighborly financial assistance. He said he applied inside the store 4 times. He said he can still work. In fact, he jumped up and proved to me that he could still stand up by himself! He was so proud. I smiled at his excitement. He then showed me how he built himself a trailer type toting apparatus out of an old jogging stroller someone blessed him with and other metal scraps he found. “I can still do things,” he said with a subdued voice.
Maiku continued to explain how difficult it was to search and apply for jobs in his condition. Though he still looked and tried, he got tons of rejection. Many businesses told him he was a liability. He also said he had a facebook page that he was trying to promote to help him out of his situation. He is an aspiring graphic designer and just wants to get back into a stable environment. He told me he appreciates love stories and is not afraid to cry during a movie.
My time was up. I thanked Maiku for sharing his story with me. I gave him the last of what cash I had in my wallet and left.
It’s been a long time since I’ve stopped to talk to a stranger. Most of the time I’m just trying to get through the day and I rarely spoke to anyone other than family, close friends, and my husband. These last few years had been incredibly challenging and wearing on me, but seeing Maiku’s positive spirit really spoke to me. I learned that if I could at least smile at some of the men and women out there, it could brighten their day. Just treating them as humans with souls...maybe they won’t feel so invisible or feel so much like a burden.
A recent study showed that only 3% of panhandlers don’t want help getting off the streets. Some only made $25 a day...barely enough to feed themselves and feed themselves decently healthy meals. And although some homeless can make up to $80k per year, it is definitely not the norm. It’s the exception to the rule. A common myth people think is that they choose to be on the streets. That is untrue and unfair. You can never judge a person’s life unless you’ve been where they are. And even then it’s subjective.
How do you feel when you walk by a panhandler? Do you avoid eye contact all costs? Do you walk to the other side of the street? Do you give them money? Are you a firm believer of not giving them money? And, how do you even know or decide that their stories are legit? I am learning to see past the obviousness of a person. I want to be empathetic and humble, and err on the side of grace. Share your thoughts.