The Benefit

My freeway exit dumps me into a part of town known for having a lot of homeless individuals. The woman I saw today is one I’ve seen before, and she’s one heck of a saleswoman/marketer.

When you get into an elevator when other people in it, I’d guess that most of us don’t say much to others (unless we know them). However, if you get the courage to say “hello” to a perfect stranger about to share your incredibly small, enclosed space, the stranger generally replies in kind. Before you know it, “Have a good day” is exchanged from him to you, and a connection is made.

Similarly, if someone smiles at you, I’m going to assume that we generally smile back. There are lots of poker faces in the world today; it’s easy to get caught up in our own little worlds and not crack even the faintest smile at a passerby. When someone does this to me, however, I a) immediately find it to be refreshing, b) am slightly embarrassed I couldn’t have been that nice, smiley person first, and then b) return the smile.

It’s nice to be nice.

The homeless woman looks clean, her hair is neatly pulled back and she’s holding a sign: “Single mom lost job. Anything helps. God bless.”

She’s also savvy: she waves as though she’s a town greeter, makes eye contact, nods her heads to all who pass by her — regardless of whether they give — and mouths, “Good morning” to me and other motorists.

I feel like a terrible, terrible human being.

I don’t know why, but I don’t buy it. No, I take that back — I know exactly why I don’t buy it, even though I know I could be dead wrong. And I would hate to be wrong.

But I don’t buy it because there’s a group of men who also works that corner, and they rotate days. I’ve seen her with this group, hanging out at the gas station convenience store a block away.

I don’t buy it because the first time I saw her there was more than a year ago. Where has the child been for the past year? Perhaps the child is with a family member and doesn’t live with her at all — in which case “single mom” is still true, technically. If the child is in your care, is a street corner really the best place for you to be? What about safety? What if the child suddenly has no mother?

I think we’re wired to be suspicious, and in this day and age, that’s a very good thing. Is $1 a great loss to me? No. If she’s being truthful, could it help her? Of course it could.

I could give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is truly a single, unemployed mother.

If the benefit of the doubt is accurate, then a dollar would only benefit her.

If “anything” would really help, perhaps she’d be open to food. Or a grocery store gift card.

And if her story is true, her dollar and any food — of means of purchasing food — would also benefit her child.

My suspicion has a domino effect: unfortunately, I think everyone — not just one person — is lying. Ever since I tried to give a homeless man the remainder of my Starbucks gift card and a hot coffee one morning on my way to work, only to have it angrily rejected, I admit I am not a fan of giving the way I one was. I will give to a rescue mission, but personal one-on-one giving is hard for me. It used to be easier.

But giving food or a dollar could have its own domino effect, as well; the benefit could extend to more than one person. Not only mother, but mother and child.

I’d like to find out her name. If I was more ballsy, I’d like to sit down with her for a chat. But that one bad experience has left me wary of extending myself in such a way, so for now I will pass.

In the meantime, while not proud of my current giving-to-homeless-people stance, I am thankful for the smiling homeless woman who has made me reevaluate my position. No doubt her presentation is intended to do such a thing, but — nearing the holidays — I find myself focusing more on the haves and have nots, more on those who need a lift in life. Even if her story isn’t truthful, maybe one more dollar is all it would take to stir something inside and make her chart a new course — one that doesn’t involve a street corner or a sign. For that, I would be grateful.

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