“Would you like to join me for lunch?” – I asked Charlotte on Christmas eve last year, while she stood at a light with her young son, holding a sign asking for spare cash. I was terrified to ask that question. I was even more terrified when she said “Yes”.
I am an introvert; I don’t go up to strangers and start a conversation. I most certainly have never struck up a conversation with a homeless person before.
I love the Christmas season. I spend as much time outside as possible, taking in holiday decorations and the colorful displays at the mall. This past Christmas though, my husband was out of the country and I was spending the holidays alone, feeling blue. Thinking a change of scenery would help I went out for lunch. It was then that I met Charlotte at an intersection near my house.
I don’t usually give money to panhandlers. I have always preferred to donate directly to a charity that helps the homeless instead of giving money to individual people. This time was different though. Charlotte was not alone, she had her mentally challenged son with her.
Mentally challenged kids hold a special place in my life and my heart. The sign she was holding said they were hungry. I could not stomach having a filling meal knowing that cute kid was hungry.
Throwing caution to the wind, for the first time in my life, I approached someone when my logical mind was begging and screaming at me not to.
We went to the closest restaurant – Denny’s. I didn’t ask her about how she ended up there. We just talked about the weather and very general stuff. Inspite of me avoiding any personal questions, I did learn quite a bit about her. She was a grocery store clerk and was married to a construction worker. They had a house and were living well. After she had her son, she quit her job as he needed constant attention and sending him to a day care for special kids was cost prohibitive.
Her husband started distancing himself from her when they had the kid. After the economy went South, he lost his job, cheated on her and left them. She lost her home at that time. She had been living on and off in a shelter, but according to her shelters are not a good place for a family, esp. with a special needs kid. She couldn’t work with him in tow. She mentioned that she couldn’t get food stamps because she lived in the wrong zip code. She had applied for housing assistance but had been on the waiting list for a couple of months at the time I met her.
I always wondered why the homeless stay homeless. In my mind if I became homeless today, I would find a shelter and apply for Government assistance. From reading online, I see that there are plenty of resources to get back people on track – unemployment, disability, SNAP/food stamps, Section 8 housing, retraining for new employment opportunities, free appliances, free basic health insurance, etc.
After I spoke to her I did some research and found out that she should not have been denied food stamps for being in the “wrong zip code”. I couldn’t find her at the same place after that day. I hope that was because she got approved for her housing and is now re-starting her new life together with her awesome son.
I was ashamed to write this post because I was wrong on so many levels.
I am ashamed that I judged people on the streets. I never thought twice when I was told most of them are drug addicts who don’t want to work. Are there lazy, drug addicts who want easy money? Absolutely, but there are people who truly want to do the best for their families and are just going through a rough patch. They don’t deserve my judgement. A clear mind and an education give me a leg up in finding information to better myself. More than anything I don’t have any dependents who require extensive assistance that might prevent me from taking a job or going back to school.
I am ashamed to admit that I was scared to approach her. I have seen too many crime dramas I guess.
I am ashamed to admit that I was selfish to think that I had it the worst. At that time, I was in the middle of a health crisis and was feeling sorry for myself. I had a lot of why-me moments during the holidays. In reality, I have it great. Yes, I am not as great as I could be, but I have the means to fix it. There is always someone who has it worse than what I have. So I should count my blessings rather than dwelling on my woes.
Does my encounter with Charlotte mean I will start giving money to panhandlers in future? No, but I did get a very good life lesson on not judging people before having an iota of information about them.
It also hammered into me the fact that I have a responsibility. I have been planning to volunteer for so long but one thing or the other always comes up. If I am honest with myself these are mere excuses. Yes, I do donate to charities but until I volunteer and get to know the people being helped personally, I will never fully understand the problems they face. I would very much like to do that.
I have a few questions for you, dear reader -
- Do you give to panhandlers?
- I have many people plug charitable donation or volunteering to others. They however, don’t do either and explain it away saying, “I will donate or volunteer once I reach _______ goal for my life.” Over time the goal keeps changing and they still don’t donate or volunteer. Why do you think that is?