Thursday, May 19, 2011

Roadside Assistance

Last week I was running some errands alone. I came to a stoplight at the end of an exit ramp and there was a man holding a sign requesting money. Actually, he was selling chocolate bars. His sign said he was down on his luck, was laid off, evicted, had a wife and two kids, and needed money for food and hotel. I am never sure what to do in those situations.

I don't know where I first heard the advice but I understood that you should not give money to people asking like that because it was likely they were lying and were going to use money for drugs or alcohol. Maybe that was a naïve or immature way to look at things but, for years that is what I did. I would sit in my car and ignore them. I never felt good about that. Once, though, I did roll down my window and give someone a $20 and when he smiled he looked mentally disabled. I really think he was one of those people with mental health issues that ends up homeless. That was years ago and I still am not sure if I did the right thing.

After that, I decided the advice I heard previously was right and I went back to not giving people in those situations money. That is pretty easy where I live. We very rarely see someone on the side of the road asking for money. I live in a suburban area just outside of a mid-sized midwestern city. I could go years without seeing that again. We do have a major league baseball team and if we go to a game, we are likely to either see someone asking for money or at least a homeless person.

As I said, I am not sure what to do.

Then there was the guy when we were in Chicago (in September 2009) who said he needed $20 to get his car out of something, we could come with him, his wife and kids were with the car. We were skeptical at the time that it was a scam but gave it to him anyway. After that trip I either heard about that scam or one similar. It only takes once for me to feel taken advantage of to turn me off from helping. It's like the saying, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

A couple things have happend recently that have again made me question again how I handle that situation.

First, I was in the UPS store making copies last year. As I was waiting to pay, an older gentleman left the store and the cashier said how sad it was and that he was homeless. I made some kind of sad face and said "Awww." and finished what I was doing. I didn't know what to do. There was another man in the store. I didn't hear exactly what his job was but it had something to do with an organization that could help the man. As I was getting into my van I saw them talking. I was glad the man got help. I wished I would've helped but I don't know what I should have done. Maybe buy him lunch? Would that have been insulting for me to offer? He wasn't even asking for anything.

Then, last summer my husband and I went to Miami for our anniversary. We were in an outdoor mall walking around with a ton of other people. The walkway was packed. There was a man in a wheelchair with no legs wheeling himself around asking for money. He was very unkempt, dirty hair and clothes and didn't really seem to be all there, though I didn't smell alcohol. Everyone just maneuvered around him. Including me and my husband. I felt horrible. Again, didn't know what to do. It was very possible he was scamming everyone and using his injury to make a profit. But it was also possible he was not.

I thought about those (and other encounters like that) and wondered what I would say if my kids asked why we weren't helping. I actually remember seeing someone at a different stoplight not terribly long ago and thinking, I hope the kids don't see him because I was afraid of that question. I try to teach them it is important to help others. They put part of their allowance aside for giving. Yet, we aren't helping someone right in front of us asking for help.

I decided that I was going to help when someone needed help. I would rather help someone who didn't need it than not help someone who really did. I would feel much better about myself and think it is a better lesson for my kids.

One of my favorite sayings is, "Stand up for what's right, even if you are standing alone." It doesn't exactly go with this situation but it is similar when everyone else is driving or walking by. It is just easier to pass the person by when everyone else is.

My first test was shortly after our trip. It was a blazing hot day and there was someone by the side of the road (I said we don't have that many encounters but I sure have a lot to talk about.) I didn't see him until right as I was going through the light and I couldn't stop. I turned into the CVS parking lot and bought a couple bottles of water and circled back around. By the time I got there, he was gone.

Back to the person on the side of the road the other day. I gave him some money (I think I had a five, a few ones, and a twenty or two--which was all also my grocery money-- so I gave him the five and ones.) When I handed it to him he said he didn't have enough candy bars. I told him I didn't want any and he said, "Thank you, I hope it comes back to you a thousand times." (Me, too.)

The other night, we went downtown to the ballgame. As we were heading to our van there was a man sitting with a sign and a cup soliciting money. I saw him long before we got to him. I got a couple dollars out of my pocket and was going to put it in his cup. As I got closer, I could see him more clearly. He was totally out of it, bloodshot eyes, staring straight ahead. I didn't give him the money.

I thought I knew what I was going to do. I thought giving money to everyone would be the best course of action. Giving the money to the guy selling candy bars felt like the right thing to do, especially since I saw no one else stop or offer money. I would not have felt right giving the money to the guy the other night. I guess I will have to look at each situation uniquely.

This is one of those situations where if someone would just tell me the right thing to do, I would do it. Instead it is up to me (as an adult and the parent) to decide for myself and I am not sure I made the right decision.


  1. Very honest post, and I totally know how you feel. I always regret passing people by like that, but mainly I am severely shy, and the thought of stopping to talk to them or just hand them money freaks me out. I want to help them, and I wish I had tons of money in my pocket to do it without worrying if I really have enough to give and still get groceries and school lunches etc. I guess it's just one of those things some of us struggle with more than others, but I'm betting MOST people feel this way too.

  2. What a thoughtful post. I feel similar, but I've long decided that if I can help & feel moved to help, I do. (I actually do not respond when people give me the story about a flat tire, etc., because I've seen that often enough that I feel it is a scan. My gut tells me when I am being solicited, perhaps because I'm a sales person!)
    A lot of people feel that one can scam a ton of money by asking on the highway, so they prefer to give through relief organizations, etc. Personally, I feel like it's not my job to speculate. If I have a bit to share when I'm asked, and feel otherwise safe, I usually do. I keep my urban wits about me and try to make sure I'm only opening up my wallet if there's a lot of people, if it's daylight, etc. You might want to add that to your thinking.