October 7, 2009


Over the weekend, Mia and I were at the grocery store. When we emerged, cart laden with food - and beer, mostly beer - a couple approached the two of us. She was dressed in tattered dress slacks and a worn hoodie while he wore torn jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt. He limped. She stared off into the middle distance, beyond my shoulder.As they grew close, they started talking.

Him: I think you might be able to help us.
Her: That crazy woman.
Him: We're homeless.
Her: She's got it all wrong.
Him: We could use some money for food.
Her: Crazy.

Something wasn't right. But I was trying to get my daughter out of the parking lot and into the car, I had no cash and, what's more, I knew they were both full of shit.

Me: I'm sorry man, I can't help you today.

They turned, walked off in the parking lot and found their next mark. I got Mia buckled into her seat, pulled up in front of the store and loaded groceries into the back. And went home.

There are reasons I know these folks are full of shit. I've seen them before. I know they have a roof over their heads at least temporarily. I know they're not in need of food. I know that the limp is a tool for sympathy; I saw it get turned on and off. I'm willing to bet that the lady is slightly crazy but that's about the only piece of the act I think was authentic.

When Mia and I were back in the car and the food was loaded into the back, Mia asked me about it.

Mia: Who were those people? What did they want?
Me: They were looking for money.
Mia: Why?
Me: Well, some people have lots of money and others don't have enough.
Mia: Oh. Okay.

I was a little shocked that she took my explanation at face value and didn't ask any more questions. So I wasn't surprised when, after lunch later in the day, it came back up.

Mia: Daddy, do I have lots of money?
Me: You do in your piggy bank. And mommy and daddy have plenty of money for what we all need.
Mia: If someone needs money, I won't give it to them.

And that's, apparently, the lesson she learned from our parking lot run-in. The wrong lesson.

Me: Mia, we are really lucky. Our family has a lot. More than most. Some people have very, very little but our family is very fortunate. And it's our responsibility to help those that don't have enough.

I guess what amazed me is that so simple an incident taught my daughter so much. And that's simultaneously very cool and slightly frightening.

Posted by Chris at October 7, 2009 6:44 AM

I used to live in Long Beach CA and there are a lot of homeless people there. One night when both us were exhausted we stopped at a McDonalds to get dinner, I saw a man looking dirty etc. walk up to my husband and ask him for money to get dinner, my husband said he had no small bills and sorry. I saw this man ask other people, one couple had just gotten churros or some type of food from a cart and gave it to the man, after they were out of his sight he walked directly to the garbage to throw it out, little did he know they were two steps away from the garbage waiting at the bustop when he saw them, he didn't throw away the food and instead had a few bites and then tossed it. About 3 mins later a guy came and picked him up in a mustang. I'm willing to bet that this guy was neither poor nor homeless and that this is his and his buddies scam. My husband came out 2 mins later with two extra hamburgers I asked him what it was for and he said the homeless guy, where did he go? I said oh his buddy came and picked him up in a car. In contrast, one day waiting for the bus to take me to the military base, I sat, saw a man with no shoes, and clearly homeless go and talk to the hotdog vendor, the vendor gave him a hotdog a drink and a bag of chips, he came and sat next to me on the bench and asked me if I would like some of his lunch, I told him thank you very much but I had eaten and he just happily ate his lunch while talking to me about the weather and the day. My heart was so full that day, thinking about this man who had nothing, not even shoes, who was willing to share his lunch with me because we were sitting at the bustop together. *sigh*

Posted by: Dee at October 7, 2009 7:57 AM

Kids are totally amazing. I've learned to treat myself with more respect because I know that my kids are always watching. I want them to love themselves a whole lot more than I ever learned to love myself, and if they hear/see me putting myself down, they will learn to do it too. So I have to watch myself constantly because they pick on everything, no matter how insignificant!

I had this one woman try to get money from me to get her car out of the parking garage because she needed to take her daughter, who was in labor, to the hospital (nevermind that the parking garage she claimed to be in was at a hospital). This happened multiple times over a two week period. Boy, poor daughter, I wonder if she ever had that kid!

Posted by: Elizabeth at October 7, 2009 8:24 AM

Being a parent isn't alway easy. And I'll bet you haven't heard the last of this one.
In fact, it isn't often easy.

Posted by: cassie-b at October 7, 2009 8:41 AM

They soak it all in, don't they?

Posted by: k8 at October 7, 2009 8:57 AM

There will be so many more opportunities for you to show Mia how to help those in need either through a handout to those who really are in need or through volunteering her time somewhere to make a difference.
That's one of the most rewarding parts of being a parent :-)

Posted by: NancyJ at October 7, 2009 9:13 AM

In Philadelphia, a few years ago, a man was arrested for pretending to be homeless and raking in close to a million dollars per year while faking it. He would dress in tattered, dirty clothing, slap some mud on his face, and stand on the streets with his cardboard sign and a dog asking (begging) for money. At the end of the day, he would walk a few blocks to where his Mercedes was parked, stash his raggedy clothes in the trunk, and drive home to his very expensive condo in the very elite part of the city. This was his "job" and it made him very rich. So, if you had an inkling that these people were frauds, go with your gut. It's okay to teach our kids to be generous & compassionate, but it's also okay to teach them how not to get scammed.

Posted by: margo at October 7, 2009 9:26 AM

We have a lot of trust fund panhandlers in town. There are a lot of people who are truly in dire need of assistance, but there are also a lot who take advantage of the kindness of others, which is so incredibly fucked up. I give less change here than I did when I lived in Sacramento. And even then, I gave change but if someone said they wanted a cup of coffee, I bought them one, or got them a sandwich.

The stigma against the homeless, or the poor in general, is undeserved and disgusting. Yes, there are homeless and poor criminals, just like there are housed and wealthy ones.

Posted by: Sparkle Pants at October 7, 2009 9:49 AM

One lazy Saturday evening my husband & I decided to just run out for a quick dinner. Being a lazy day, we weren't dressed well. After parking our car, we noticed a starving cat in the parking lot of the restaurant we were going into. I saved some meat for the cat, cut it into tiny pieces and just put it in a napkin. Upon leaving the restaurant, we couldn't find the cat. So, here we are in the parking lot peering on the ground, under cars...and another couple is leaving the restuarant, the woman has a take out box. It's very dark but she sees me dressed in sweats, looking around the ground seriously and she offers me her meat - I was so focused on finding this poor cat that it didn't immediately dawn on me what she was doing. I just happily told her thank you but I have some already, proudly holding up my napkin of meat (meant for the cat). It took a minute or two for me to realize she thought I was homeless & hungry (ok, I'm slow sometimes) but we still laugh about that today! We never did find the cat so I just left the food by the building hoping he'd smell it.
On the child thing - my son asked me a few years ago how you know if someone asking you for money is a scam or not. I just told him to trust his instincts and if he happens to help someone who is not in need, well it's ok because he did the right thing and the "bad karma" is on them. It's always better to be too kind than cruel. In your case, it was clearly a scam but I'm talking about the ones where you just don't know.

Posted by: LaineyDid at October 7, 2009 10:53 AM

Here in NYC we of course have a lot of homeless folks. I only give occasionally, these days rarely.

While I do firmly believe in generosity and helping people through a tough time, I've come to a point in my life where I feel it isn't my obligation to support other people when they are not willing to at least attempt becoming capable of supporting themselves. They have no business feeling entitled to my hard-earned salary.

This issue is not black and white for me. I almost never give out cash but do make the effort to donate most of my daughter's clothing to a local women's shelter.

I also feel very blessed and furtunate- I have a very simple lifestyle and a decent job and I don't feel guilty about it.

Giving should always be a choice, not an obligation and we should always remember things aren't always as they appear- which applies to those who look wealthy and those who don't.

Posted by: jessica at October 7, 2009 10:58 AM

portland has such a large homeless/street population. i assume it's worse than DC simply because of our year-round mild weather and super liberal demographics. just walking the three blocks from the train to my work (which is in the heart of the downtown shopping/business area, not a technically "bad" area), i usually get asked about five times for money. every corner and on/off ramp has someone with a sign. in the winter when the leaves fall off the bushes surrounding the freeways and overpasses, an unbelievable amount of camps/trash piles are visible. the city constantly struggles with enacting constitutionally sound laws and regulations that help the businesses affected by panhandling at their doors while at the same time not violating panhandlers' rights.
my husband and i lament about the situation a lot. how tourists and visitors to our city must leave with a negative perspective because of how many street people they see. and how we, in general, feel even less likely to give (and guilty at the same time) after being constantly accosted for money. when i see an old vet or someone with a clear real disability, including schizophrenia, i have sympathy. and i do try give to the resources available to them. but it's a real sore spot here. i wish i had the answers...

Posted by: kati at October 7, 2009 11:16 AM

I had the question of whether burglars had homes. My daughter (7) assumed that people who break in to others' homes do so because of extreme need. Difficult to explain that some people are just douchebags. Don't want her jaded *quite* yet. Lots of time for that :-(

Posted by: harmzie at October 7, 2009 12:38 PM

Ahh, the big Need vs Want debate. It's a hard one for kids to grasp. I've finally got my kids to understand that you don't always need what you want, and that sometimes people will play off of your inability to differentiate the two in order to take advantage of you.

Fill a need? Go ahead. Indulge a want? Hell, no.

I don't give money to anyone, ever, on the street. But when my kids ask, I let them give some to charity. Because i WANT them to help and to give, just to the right places, to those who actually NEED.

Plus, I really like lemonade and they really like selling it for the Children's Hospital. :)

Posted by: Mr Lady at October 7, 2009 1:09 PM

I can't say more than what's already been said. I guess you just have to show her that it's okay to give but don't get scammed. I recently saw two people climb out of a nice car and stage for a hard day of begging. After they got into their "costumes," one sat in a wheelchair while the other one made a cardboard sign.

I've also seen "homeless people" throw food away that was offered to them. I gotta admit these incidents turn me off entirely to giving to panhandlers.

Posted by: Rengirl at October 7, 2009 2:45 PM

I've had a few incidents when my son was with me also, mostly being approached in grocery store parking lots asking for cash. It was happening so often two years ago that I'm convinced most of the time that it was a scam. I don't believe in handing out cash. I believe in charity and I support charities that I know. The homeless is a major problem in far too many of our cities, but there isn't an easy fix for it.

Dee's comment warmed my heart about the guy with no shoes offering to share his lunch with her.

Posted by: One Mom's Opinion at October 7, 2009 4:06 PM

Living as close to the city as we do, we have had this conversation many times. It goes pretty much the same as you described, but I also tell Declan about how we give money to the Denver Rescue Mission, so we help a lot of people and not just one.

Posted by: Aimee Greeblemonkey at October 7, 2009 10:40 PM

Actually they always learn more from our ACTIONS than our words...indeed frightening and inspiring to do what we say we believe. And explain that some times people are full of shit too!

Posted by: Gypsy at October 7, 2009 11:10 PM

I recently saw an amazing Indigenous Australian film (Australia is a little known island in a far flung corner of the globe that you may or may not have heard of, people tend to not take us very seriously...) Anyway, this was a seriously amazing film called Samson and Delilah. After seeing it I promised myself I would never say no to someone who was asking again, no matter what the score seemed to be. Easier said than done.

Posted by: RubyTwoShoes at October 8, 2009 11:23 PM

I recently saw an amazing Indigenous Australian film (Australia is a little known island in a far flung corner of the globe that you may or may not have heard of, people tend to not take us very seriously...) Anyway, this was a seriously amazing film called Samson and Delilah. After seeing it I promised myself I would never say no to someone who was asking again, no matter what the score seemed to be. Easier said than done.

Posted by: RubyTwoShoes at October 8, 2009 11:23 PM

I don't give money to people on the street either, but instead donate to the food bank or other organizations. Hubs and I have jobs with the public, and we DO help out with people we know. I've often slipped kids the extras from my lunch, donated quietly so they can participate in field trips, given them school supplies, etc.

Kids are amazing, though. Once when Jake was about 3 we were out grocery shopping and on our way into the store, he offered a homeless man at the entrance a handful of gold fish crackers. The man accepted, Jake plunked them in his hand and kept going. When I asked him why he did that (he'd never done it before), he just shrugged and said, "He looked hungry."

Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?

Posted by: Scattered Mom at October 10, 2009 11:00 AM