Did I deal with this beggar correctly?

I was heading into Walgreens when a woman with two small children approached me.

“Sir? Sir… can you help?”

Her voice was raspy, and she had a piece of paper that she held out to me.  In small, shaky script was a story about her children being sick and her having lost her job. I don’t remember all of the details. I said, “I don’t have any cash.”  She replied, “Please sir, we are hungry… we just need food. Maybe some diapers.”

So I told her to follow me into the store. I said, “I need to go pick up a prescription. Find what you need. Be reasonable. And meet me at the front when you are ready.”

I picked up my prescription, and went to the front, and she was there with a shopping cart full of stuff.

 


 

Before I continue, I want to say that I’ve used this strategy before. I think of it as kind of an experiment: rather then telling them what they can and cannot get, or how much I’m willing to spend, I test them to see what they will do if it is left up to them. Almost every time, I am pleasantly surprised. Whether from modesty or embarrassment or just plain good morals, most of the times I’ve done this the people have gotten the absolute necessities, in the cheapest possible varieties. Usually the bill comes to between $40 and $80, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the restraint they show. In one case, back when I lived in L.A., the woman was so timid about picking stuff out for herself I actually encouraged her to get more.

I have a great deal of compassion for the homeless and the destitute. If you haven’t read my previous writings on the topic, I’d ask you to check out:

The homeless man and you

A letter to the demonized poor

Now let’s get back to the main story.

 


 

I smiled at her and walked with her up to the cash register, and watched as it was unloaded and the items were rung up. There were brand name diapers, and sugary cereals. There were toys, and candy. Where was nothing that looked like a nutritious meal, and even counting the sweets and brand name snack foods, more than half of the haul was not edible. The total bill came to $150.

I didn’t say a word as I swiped my card, and took the receipt, and helped to bag everything before walking out the doors of the store with the woman and her children. Standing in the parking lot, I turned to her, and leaned in closely to make sure I could be heard without raising my voice.

I placed the long receipt for all of the items into her hand, and looked her in the eyes. “You keep this,” I said with emphasis, a slight frown on my face as I squinted my eyes, looking into hers. “You told me you were hungry, and there’s not a lot of food in these bags.”

She started to speak, but at this point I wasn’t interested in hearing what she had to say. I kept talking over her: “I’m sure you had reasons for getting the things you got. And I like seeing kids smile, too. But if you’re hungry now, you’re going to be hungry again very soon. So you hold onto this… and I hope they let you exchange some of these things for stuff that will last a little longer.”

It was the best thing I could think of to do.

What do you think? What would you have done?



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  1. There is something called: EBT. Your tax dollars are paying for it, so that’s what you should have told her. The lowest income groups in America are the most obese (which explains the sugary cereal).

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I need to learn more about exactly how public assistance in Dallas works. You’re right, a good response would have been for me to ask her if she was in any sort of program, and if not — it would be ideal if I could say: “Hey, this is what you need to do.”

  2. Justin says:

    Honestly sir,
    I’m just curious, did u help this lady because it was the right thing to do, or because u know it’s the right thing to do??
    Let me explain what I mean sir!!
    Did u help this lady genuinely because u knew her & her children would benefit from ur offer?? Or did u help her because U’ve always been told this was the right thing to do??
    You said U’ve done this before many times, sort of like an experiment to see how they’ll react!!
    NO DISRESPECT INTENDED BY ANY MEANS, BECAUSE U HELPED THAT FAMILY EITHER WAY!!
    My question & it’s answer is for u ONLY!! Did u benefit from this experiment more than they did??
    Sincerely sir thank u for ur kindness, cuz most people wouldn’t have even given this lady a 2nd look!! The world would be much better if more people followed ur lead!!
    GOD BLESS!!

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thank you for your comment!

      I think it would be an oversimplification to say that my motivation was ONLY one or the other, to be quite honest.

      One of my motivations was to help this individual feel better, even if it was just for a moment. I am a big advocate of the idea that “all politics is local” (and social work, as well), and I like to take my philosophy and ideology and express it in my one-on-one human interactions. So although I will donate to charities and vote for politicians who want to raise the minimum wage or improve health care for the poor, I ALSO like to give through simple one on one interactions as well… because I think it can make a change in an individual’s life.

      But, as I said in the article, part of my motivation was also for myself: to learn something more about people, to “live the experience” of interacting with this person — someone whom I would normally never interact with — and see what new perspective or growth I could attain out of that interaction.

      Finally, on some sublimnal level, I may have been motivated to do it because I was “taught” that it was the right thing to do… however, it isn’t a “reflex” or something I did out of guilt. I was raised without belief in God, so I didn’t feel “compelled” by the word of an Outside Spirit to do it. I can’t deny that my personality is the result of my upbringing (of course!!) but I don’t think it would be accurate to say that I did it “simply” because I was taught it is a good thing to do… the action was a lot more self-reflective than that.

  3. Ken Knudson says:

    While I applaud your generosity and empathy, and would encourage others to follow your example, some (maybe most) of us simply can’t afford to gamble that a person in need will make “reasonable” choices. In my opinion, this person was using you, whether intentionally or not, to satisfy short-term wants, rather than longer term needs. You appear to be able to afford the outlay, so I’m glad that you followed through, rather than leaving her at the cash register with nothing but a scowl. But your followup chat with her was the greater gift — let’s hope it made an impression.

  4. david says:

    I think there’s no one correct way to deal with someone begging of you. In this incident, you exercised generosity, patience, and honesty. Considering the unsolvable-by-any-one-act-of-kindness shitshow that the woman’s life probably is, it sounds like you offered her freely of what you have. Most of us treat the desperately poor with contempt or with coddling, and neither of those ascribe dignity. You gave her a choice, and you gave her your best attempt at honest wisdom for that moment. I think that is as dignifying and empowering and challenging as she allows it to be. And I think you’re kind, for what that’s worth. Thank you for not being a dick to her.

  5. Shortest Straw says:

    It’s “beggar”.

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