A couple of months ago, at a stoplight, I saw a homeless man who looked to be about my age. He had a dog. I'm not a dog person - at all - but for some reason, that man with his dog really tore me up. I went straight to a local grocery store, Dierberg's, and bought a gift card (thinking that Dierberg's has both people and dog food). I went back and the man and dog were gone. I'm not sure why I didn't just give the guy money, when I had a chance, but I tend not to do that. I've been known to buy coffee and egg sandwiches for homeless guys. One time Ruthie and I went to Diergergs and bought raisins and trail mix and other such snacks and took the bag of them to the homeless guy at the corner of Skinker and Forest Park Parkway. My point is that I don't hand out cash very often, so when I got back to the spot where I'd seen the homeless dog owner, he was gone and I hadn't helped him (or his poor raggedy dog).
Right before Christmas, I saw another homeless man at another stoplight. I can't remember what his sign said, but it broke my heart. I actually ended up giving him the Dierberg's gift card that was originally intended for the dog guy. I also gave him a $5 Target gift card that I had in my purse from buying three bags of coffee and getting a free $5 card (or some such promotion). When I drove away, I thought, "Have I actually ever seen a homeless person in Target?" What will that guy do with the $5 gift card? Will he make his way to Target and buy soap and deodorant? Will he get a pretzel and a drink at the Cafe? Will he trade the card in? Do the homeless have a place where they gather and barter and exchange what they've been given? Can he get drugs for a Target card? Do these questions matter?
I never know what to do about the homeless that I see pretty regularly around town. There are some obvious answers to the question of what I could do to help the homeless in general. I have a degree in social work. I could go get a job working with homeless people. I could volunteer regularly at a homeless shelter. There are things that I DO do. I donate yearly to the St. Louis food bank. I give hats and gloves when asked. I buy Christmas gifts for kids in need. I put money in the Salvation Army buckets sprinkled around town at Christmas. BUT what about the guy on the corner with the dog? What do you do?
I spent last weekend in downtown Chicago, and of course, I saw many homeless. I dropped some money in, here and there, and then I saw a homeless man at 7-11 feeding dollar bills into the lottery machine. Sad! I almost can't write about how sad I felt seeing that. What should he do, though, with the small stack of dollar bills he might receive throughout a day, sitting on a corner of Michigan Ave., with a sign telling a sad tale and an old Starbucks cup? How should I feel about it? Does it even matter to me what he does with that money? Should I be glad he's not buying drugs or alcohol? Right now it just breaks my heart that he's spending the money he has, in hopes of hitting it big. I don't care that he chooses to spend his money on lottery tickets, so much as I'm sad that people live their lives this way! The incident at the lottery machine is just an example of how destitute so many people are.
So, back to me (and you). What should I (we) do? Should I just give people a couple of dollars when they ask me at the stoplight? Should I load my purse with gift cards (because they may be gone by the time I get back)? Should I just give more money to agencies that help the homeless? Please share with me your thoughts! If you're reading this, and you work with homeless people, I admire you, and I'd love to hear any advice you have for people like me!