NYC is a tough city. Everything is expensive - rent, food, getting around the city, life in general. And sometimes it’s difficult to navigate that for yourself, and also figure out what course of action you’re going to take when someone on the streets ask you for money. There are typically 3 responses:
Ignore the person and keep walking
Stop and give them a dollar or $5, more if you have a lot to go around
Tell them you’ll take them to a place to buy them food
I’ve done all of these. And I don’t have any concrete answers, but I think it’s important to explore what we do, why and try to revise what our course of action moving forward will be.
There are plenty of people who ignore the person and keep walking. Or ignore the person on the subway and put in their headphones, look the other way, or get off the train at the next stop and move to a different car. And while this might be necessary sometimes, I find that it begins to eat away at my humanity and my empathy - 2 qualities I really happen to like! So I think it’s important to NOT do that. I find that when you continually make decisions that don’t take into consideration the kindness and care of others - it leads you to a path of isolation, cynicism and hatred for life in general. And who wants that?!? So I go to the next option…
Stop and give them a dollar. Or $5 or $20. You get the idea. Well, I have a fun little story. About 10 years ago, when I was still relatively new to the city - I was walking to the Chelsea projects to volunteer early on a Saturday morning. This was a time when I was recently unemployed and was accounting for every last dollar. I just bought myself a $1 coffee in change from the bodega - being low on cash. And a man outside the bodega asked me for some money for coffee, to which I replied ‘I don’t have any cash’. He said ok and then started up a conversation and walked with me towards the meet up site. I wasn’t in any danger, as far as I could tell, and we were just talking about the city, etc. The conversation came to a point where we disagreed about what NY and out of state drivers licenses looked like, and so he dove into his pocket to prove me wrong, pulling out his Pennsylvania ID and what looked like over a thousand dollars in a fat cash wad. $1000. Maybe more, it was huge. My eyes gave me away (I would be a terrible poker player) and he realized what he had in his hand. He stuffed it into his pants quickly and separated out the ID to make his point. I acquiesced, mostly because now I just wanted to get away from this guy. So I wrapped up the conversation and began walking more briskly to my volunteer group. THAT HUGE LONG STORY TO SAY - I have given people money outright. I’ve even made experiments of it. One time, probably not long before that incident, I vowed to carry dimes and quarters and give one to every person who asked. Trying to follow the scripture Matt 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. After that incident with the PENN ID guy, I decided that I would always carry granola bars in my purse. Since the request is usually money for food - I thought I could just always carry a snack to help someone out. Though I can’t tell you how many people who asked couldn’t eat granola because of weak teeth or just didn’t like it. Which then brings me to…
Taking someone out for food. Here’s a fun story. This was many, many years ago when I was in debt and working my way out of it. The previous year, I had booked a 6 figure salary job and for some reason, even after the job ended - I felt like I would just keep booking working like that - no problem. Well, there are never ANY guarantees when you’re an actor - so I was wildly naive and ignorant. And then followed a year where I began to rack up a pretty good sum of debt. Then the following year, I decided I had to get out of it. I was getting so good at budgeting my money, that I had gotten my groceries down to about $20 a week -only buying things like eggs, potatoes and vegetables. So I was finishing up teaching at a school and going into the subway when a woman, probably in her 60s, and with a bruised face and eye asked me for a sandwich. I walked past her and went into the subway and then found myself not being able to shake the feeling that I was meant to buy her a sandwich. So I trekked up the stairs and told her I’d buy her a sandwich. Her face lit up like child on Christmas morning, it was absolutely adorable. She picked out a sandwich, chips and a soda, which came out to almost $20, mind you, my weekly grocery bill. But she was so thrilled and excited to have food - that I knew I made the right decision.
So where does that leave me? I think it’s important not to walk past and forget my humanity. I don’t want to get duped giving money to someone who doesn’t need it. But it’s also impossible to always know who needs it and who doesn’t. And with all of that - I don’t want that information to paralyze me in a state of inertia. So I am prayerful about who to help, when and how much. I consider it, when people are asking of me. And I recognize that I’m just trying to do my best, knowing I’m never going to have this system down to a perfection, but eager to live in a way that is in service to others.