This is a tough decision. It’s very difficult for me to be asked by someone for money or something to eat and say, “No, sorry.” I have been faced with this question plenty of times during my travels. Every city has its fair share of homeless people panhandling. Some have clever signs like “Testing the Kindness of Humanity”, while other use cute dogs to tug on people’s heartstrings, and some just ask you, plain and simple.
The answer is easier when I truly don’t have any change or cash on me. I can say “no” with less guilt because I am not lying. When I do have cash in my pocket, however, I do a quick assessment if the cash on me is something I need for, let’s say the bus or VooDoo Doughnuts, who only takes cash. I feel bad if I don’t give anything, but at the same time, I am not always in the financial position to give to every person I meet on the street.
Growing up, I was taught to ignore these homeless people. Just look ahead and don’t talk to them. It’s really hard to do sometimes. After living in Nashville, where many of the homeless population came into Starbucks, or sold The Contributor newspaper outside, I began to think differently. No, I don’t know every person on the street’s situation, and no, I have no idea what they are going to do with the money I give them.
Today, I was sitting at a coffee shop in Medford doing work on my laptop. I had purchased my coffee and oatmeal — the only food item vegan. A man with a walker entered the shop and sat down not too far away. After some time passed, he asked me for a sandwich. My automatic reaction was, “No, sorry.” I only really get paid once a month and with so much more of my travels to come, I have to be careful with my money. That was my first thought. My second thought was I did not have any cash on me. The man nodded and thanked me anyway.
I sat staring at my laptop contemplating and feeling quite upset with myself. This man did not ask me for money, but food. I could surely afford to give this man a $3 sandwich. I know where it was going. My next thought was, “But I’m vegan”. To spend my money on a turkey sandwich seemed against myself, but then I felt denying a man in need of food was also against who I am. I stared at my laptop a moment longer, weighing the bigger dilemma.
I bought the sandwich and handed it to the grateful man, who then hoped my generosity would expand to offer him money for a cab. I had to draw the line there, especially since I did not have cash, nor was I going to get cash. I wish I could understand what puts each person in the situation they are in. I sometimes wish I could be like so many people and turn away, thinking it is their own fault. That certainly could be true for many of them, but we never know who really is in need. That sandwich we buy could be all they eat for a week, or how maybe a warm smile with eye contact can lift their morale.
I know there will always be moments when I have to say “no” to someone in need. But I also know that kindness to any race — human, animal, or ecological — is what changes the world, whether you see it or not. Maybe it won’t stop wars or end poverty, but it will teach others and it will change someone’s world in some small way.