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Christmas Eve with Charlotte

“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.

Homeless with children

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?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily @ evolvingPF

Thanks for this wonderful story, Suba. I am also scared of personal interactions with panhandlers. Our church has created many opportunities to give care packages directly to the homeless but I’ve always skirted it. I think I would be less afraid to approach a woman with a child, but I have never seen a child with a panhandler and women are rare. We give money directly to a local homeless shelter (which I know is the “right” thing to do) but I don’t think that can replace even one genuine interaction with a homeless person like you had. Thanks for the inspiration to replicate this in my own life. My husband and I created a plan to buy gift cards of $5-10 to local quick-serve restaurants or drug stores to hand to panhandlers, but we haven’t implemented it yet.


Invest It Wisely

I didn’t even think of this, but not once in my life have I seen a woman with a child asking for money where I live in Canada. 80% of the time in my experience it’s physically able men, either young or old, and the other times it’s someone that is mentally handicapped in some way and you really can’t blame them, as that sort of bad luck could strike anyone. I’ve only seen this in my travels to other places. Really makes you think… how can this happen in a rich western nation?



Yes I do; but then it is probably easier here (Europe) to get beyond the ‘they are just lazy drug addicts’ ideology. We mistrust governments and neo-liberalism naturally (though the latter is becoming harder). In fact, $15 that I gave a beggar helped him get accomodation and a job (don’t know how he is doing now though). Poverty is a systemic matter; largely. And there are circumstances when people are just caught in Catch 22 situations – this is why we have to maintain societies that provide a safety net instead of judging.

Well done, Suba, for doing what you did; I hope you will find this lady and her son again and will be able to really help them.


Frugal Portland

I’m the opposite — I always always give to people on the street if I have cash. I have money squirreled away in my car for that reason. I don’t know why people are on the street, ever, but I know that if I have cash and someone asks, the answer is always yes. I’m so moved by your story of taking a stranger out to lunch. I’m not Christian, but that is what the Christmas spirit is all about.


Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager

Yes (and no).

I volunteer weekly with a non-profit that serves the homeless community here in Portland. I know a bunch of them on a first name basis and they all know and love my puppy (he comes with me). So I’ll grab lunch with them from time to time but normally when I meet someone I don’t recognize I suggest they come to our meet up for a hot meal and some free clothes. (As a single gal, I’m with you on the security thing).

That being said, I try to make an effort to talk to people, give them eye contact and make them feel human and loved. Even if it’s just to tell them I don’t have any cash on me and say a silent prayer as I walk away.



I never give cash to the homeless. I will give to the charities that support them. When I had a restaurant, I would give them food though.


Crystal @ Prairie Ecothrifter

I do give cash to panhandlers once in a while. If I have food near me, I always give them that. I just feel that I’m doing well and it makes me feel happy to share – I know, I give for selfish reasons. I’m okay with that. As for volunteering, I love it and feel worse when I stop. The Houston SPCA was my fave from 2005-2007, but then we moved 45 minutes to an hour away. I did Meals on Wheels for most of 2011 but stopped when the ad business got so busy and my mood has taken a hit. I’m looking into closer volunteering options right now.


Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey

“I should count my blessings rather than dwelling on my woes.” I so agree with you. This is the problem with many people nowadays that saddens me. I also believe that it is one of the causes of many discontented and dissatisfied individuals, because they do not count their blessings. Or if they do, they only count the bigger ones. A line in a Christmas song goes, “Count our blessings, instead of sheep.” I hope our attitudes change, Christmas or not.




This is another thought-provoking article. I, too, have gone through waves of guilt and self-punishment in developing my interactions with those who are homeless. Now I encounter significantly higher numbers of homeless people on my everyday walk. Here’s my own personal list of what I like to give:
1. Dignity
2. Eye Contact/Smile
3. Food
4. Cash

Each exchange is different. There are times where the other person wants only cash without the genuine effort to connect. But I have learned to wait and listen to how the other person enters the conversation.


SB @ One Cent At A Time

I do not even look at them forget about talking or giving money. But this article is powerful enough to let me think the other side of it. I never tried to find out why they are on street. Inspiring post.



When I lived in West Seattle, my husband and I would always remark with wonder how close we were to being homeless ourselves. We moved cross-country with much less preparation than we should have had, and through luck and love, we were able to build a stable life for ourselves. So I suppose we felt an affinity for the down-and-out and would give to panhandlers when we saw them in our rare trips to downtown Seattle — you never know what misstep could have gotten them to their homeless state.


Khaleef @ Fat Guy, Skinny Wallet

I will never give them money (part of growing up in a poor, urban area), but I will try to assist them in other ways. I will usually try to buy them food if they are hungry, try to come back with warm clothing if it’s cold out (something that I haven’t done in a while).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with Charlotte and her son. I hope that your kindness helped to change her in some way.


Invest It Wisely

Thanks for sharing this story Suba, very honorable for you to want to help. I rarely give to panhandlers, but I also believe in helping out in other ways. I donated to a charity for runaway kids last year. Some people stay homeless out of choice, others out of unfortunate circumstances. It’s easy to judge, and undoubtedly some don’t want to be helped, but to a certain extent, our own minds can imprison us. There are ways to help, and I’m all for that.


Ed Hoffmann @ How Will I Pay For College?

Very powerful post – you can tell it is personal.

I rarely give to panhandlers any more. After growing up in New York and living in San Francisco and Cincinnati, I have seem way too many scammers who are either making a living at panhandling (rather than working and creating capital), or want something for nothing and have no dignity.

How do you separate out those in need from those in greed? I have no magic formula, and I try not to judge them. Instead, I volunteer, donate, and always seek to help out individuals in our community in need – and try hard to make it go unseen. As I tell my Scouts, “Why do you help people? Because they need help – that’s all!”


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