How Do You Know?

English: A homeless man in New York with the A...

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A couple of days ago I was loading groceries into my car when I was approached by a large and intimidating looking man who mumbled something to me.  He was rather gruff and did not speak distinctly, so I didn’t know what he said.  He repeated himself and held out an ID card with his picture on it, but no address.  I still couldn’t understand him and was embarrassed to ask him to repeat what he said once again.  The third time was not the charm, and I finally said, “I don’t think so,” hoping that would answer whatever he had asked. He sighed heavily, like he was talking to an idiot (and I sort of felt like one at that point), looked me right in the eye, and gruffly but distinctly said, “Will you buy a homeless man a meal?” He said it like a challenge.

I checked my purse. “I don’t usually carry cash, but I have four dollars. I hope that will help.” His whole demeanor changed. For the first time in our rather odd conversation, he smiled and asked me how my day was. He told me he was going across the street where some fast food places were so he could get something to eat and the four dollars would work out fine. Then he thanked me and headed off.

Was he really homeless? He looked like he was, but I really don’t know. Could he have been scamming me? Maybe, but my instincts tell me he wasn’t. What about all the people on the street corners holding up signs that say they they are out of work and need a hand-out? Do I give to every one of them? No, I don’t, but I do give to some of them. I take stock of their appearance and the looks on their faces and make the best judgment I can, but I try to err in their favor. After awhile, you learn to recognize the desperate look of the truly needy.

I wasn’t always like this. Some years ago an assembly program came to the middle school where I worked. It was called “Rachel’s Challenge.” Rachel Scott was the first teen killed at Columbine during that tragic day in Colorado in 1999. Rachel had been a kind and loving child, and the story of her life and entries from her diary were such a powerful testament to what caring can do in people’s lives, especially the outcasts and the broken, that Rachel’s father developed an assembly program to take into schools all over the country, to challenge kids to stop bullying and to be kinder to each other. The program was powerful, and the children were convicted. Many of them cried.

But it wasn’t just the children who were touched. One of the stories that was told about Rachel was when she was working at a sandwich shop. A homeless woman came in, and Rachel thought she looked hungry. She was going to make her a sandwich, but she changed her mind. Then another woman came into the shop, noticed the homeless woman, and bought her a meal. Rachel felt she had missed an opportunity. When the homeless woman left, she forgot her gloves. Rachel held onto them, hoping she would return, but she never did. Rachel kept the gloves on her dresser to remind her never to hesitate to help someone again.

Rachel’s challenge has always stayed with me. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to help someone in need, though I’m sure I’ve been had sometimes. How do you know? Does it really matter?

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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45 Responses to How Do You Know?

  1. shalarx says:

    Rachel’s challenge has changed my life as well. My 8 year old daughter participates in it at school and was inspired to take $40 from her piggy bank to help a complete stranger paralyzed in a drive by shooting on his 21st birthday. That $40 would start a chain reaction of kindess that turned into $10,000 to help this young man with physical therapy expenses. An inspiring story that stemmed from this inspiring program. Watch the video. It is great and will make you smile for sure!

  2. Jenny says:

    I read this post when you posted it. I am looking at the comments and see I didn’t leave one. This was a wonderful post and so touching. Shortly after your post my college friend posted a story that is sort of related.

  3. yen says:

    This is a beautiful post, Susan, and good question, too. I agree with you on being generous but exercising wisdom and caution as well. I also don’t give money to everyone who approaches me but I like Ms. Georgette’s idea of buying a meal to give away. As for being tricked or lied to, I think that’s between them and God. All I have to do is obey and help those that we can. Every time I see a homeless person or a child begging for food it always breaks my heart and makes me ask “what can we do for them?”

  4. Gobetween says:

    You will probably think badly of me but I never give money to beggars. The problem is when you do it when you are at home they tend to return and make a nuisance of themselves and you end up hiding in your own home. At intersections you usually find the con artists and drunks. I give money to people I know are truly going through a tough time or where the bread winner in the family passed away leaving the family in financial difficulty.

    • Coming East says:

      I absolutely don’t feel badly about you, Gobetween! You choose to help in the way that feels right and best for you. What’s important is for us to reach out to people in need and not turn away. Good for you!

  5. sobeit says:

    We have talked about this in my Sunday School class several time. How do we know if the person will use the money appropriately, and are they trying to run a scam? Ultimately, we agreed that if we feel encouraged to help this person, then the Lord will take over after we have left the scene. It’s in his hands! Just our thoughts on the subject.

  6. jeanne says:

    How do we know? We don’t! But that shouldn’t be our reason to not help out when we can…we can not help everyone but we can help someone.

  7. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    This is such a very difficult subject because I can’t afford to give to everyone either. I don’t like being intimidated into giving money… I don’t know, just don’t know.

    • Coming East says:

      This is difficult, Wordsfall. I can’t afford to give to everyone, either, and I’m with you. If they intimidate me, I won’t give. The man I encountered could have been intimidating because of his size and demeanor, but I didn’t feel threatened, so I gave.

  8. lwayswright says:

    I love this post. A similar thing happened to my husband and I new years weekend. A homeless man was asking for money outside a convenience store. The first impulse was to walk away. Then we decided to give him a couple of dollars. We got in our car to leave and saw the doggy bag that we had just gotten from the restaurant we ate at. We decided to give that to him as well. He was so appreciative and it changed his whole demeanor. It was the highlight of our new year.

  9. Loved that you helped him mom – my children have witnessed me give money, food, blankets, and even rides to “homeless” people. Sometimes it is best to err in their favor. I just keep thinking, “someone misses this person” and I wonder how I would feel if it was one of my family members. Who would help them?

    • Coming East says:

      I know you’ve helped many people, Ems. Thats one of the many things I love about you. I’ll always remember your story about buying that homeless man a blanket.

    • WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

      It’s interesting to me you think ‘someone misses this person’. I myself am not sure anyone but my son would TRULY miss me – and I imagine the people on the street probably feel unmissed too.

      It’s great your kids witness it, but I do hope they understand also – wariness and caution. You sound very generous.

      • Coming East says:

        My Pajama Days is my daughter, Wordsfall,and she does use caution and good judgment. She grew up with a cop for a father! but I am glad that my granddaughters get to see what generosity of spirit means.

  10. Huffygirl says:

    I never know what to do either Susan. I like Val’s idea of bringing a sandwich, and not just handing out money. As long as our economy continues like it’s going, I think we will see more and more people in need.

  11. E.C. says:

    Very thought provoking post. I don’t think you were wrong in helping that man. You have a good heart. 🙂
    Rachel was a beautiful soul.Her words and observations is much older than her few years. This world is a sadder place without her. Thanks for sharing her experience and wisdom with us. 🙂

  12. pattisj says:

    My husband was approached recently at a gas station, and told me about it when he got home. So many are hurting right now. We make the best decision we can at the moment, and figure it’s between them and God what they do with it.

  13. judithhb says:

    Well done Susan. I had a similar experience earlier this week – However, having seen the same woman the next day I am sure that my experience was a scam.
    I have often given a few dollars for food when asked and am sure that mostly they are honest folk down on their luck. 🙂

    • Coming East says:

      I just read your post , Judith. I am so far behind in catching up on my blog reading, I didn’t even know about your accident. Forgive me! I will try and catch up and be a better blogging friend.

  14. Big Al says:

    Good article East. We’ve all had some experience in the “wish I had…” department. I wrote about one in my blog if you want to read it.

  15. I’ve come to believe that I might be judged more harshly for saying no to someone who lies about what he needs than he will be judged for lying. As you say, how do you know? “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat.” It’s not the receiving that’s judged; it’s the willingness to give. If I give, I am redeemed. And we never know when we could be the ones in need. Thanks for the reminder.

  16. winsomebella says:

    You ask a good question, Coming East. Rachel kept those gloves as a reminder to not miss an opportunity to care. Maybe if we remain open to such opportunity, the answer will come.

  17. Val says:

    Where I used to live there was a bench in a nearby park that was always used by a homeless man. I walked by him many times and then one day took to sitting down with him and having a chat – and I took a sandwich to share with him.

    The main thing, I think, is to put oneself in their shoes and ask if you’d want someone to help you or walk by.

    As for whether one’s being conned or not… does it matter? What might we be spending our money on otherwise? We don’t just spend money on essentials.

  18. Your post today struck a chord with me. There are so many people in need, yet there are also scammers out there too, so how do we know who to help? I love Georgette’s suggestion of buying a meal and giving it away. That way you know the money truly went to fill someone’s empty stomach. T//.his reminds me of an acquaintance of mine, Sue Vicory. A few years ago, she made a short documentary on homelessness. If you’re interested, you can view it on Youtube: She began a project called My Power of One that helps the homeless.

  19. Shary Hover says:

    I like Rachel’s message and it’s a good reminder to go with our first impulse to give if the situation is right. The last time someone asked me for a sandwich, though, he was so aggressive and abusive with his language that he frightened both me and my dog away. I have a feeling he wasn’t really a homeless person in need of food but rather a scam artist trying to intimidate me. I was definitely intimidated, but neither of us got a sandwich that day.

    • Coming East says:

      Yes,mid someone scares you because of their demeanor, you need to get away fast. Whether or not they are being honest, you don’t want to put yourself in a dangerous situation, Shary.

  20. mairedubhtx says:

    I think you just have to take a chance and go with your gut instinct to helpt someone. Sure you might get “taken” a couple of times, but I’ve found that when I’ve given out my “snack packs” (tuna snacks with crackers and a juice pack and a cookie), people are extremely thankful. With the economy the way it is now, peopleare hurting. Take a chance on helping someone. You did the right thing.

  21. What a thoughtful post. I like the stories within it and they make your point so well. It is hard to make that call. I remember giving a couple $5 and left not sure what would become of that. More often I have gone through the line at McDonald’s and bought an extra meal to give through my car window at a nearby intersection. It’s disturbing how sure I am there will be someone there to receive it.

    • Coming East says:

      My goodness, Georgette, you are so right. I never thought about how sure we are that we will see someone in need on a street corner that we could pickup an extra meal to give away. That is so thoughtful of you to do that. We can’t wait for our government to take care of these people. We have to be our government.

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