“Why did that crying lady talk to you, Daddy?”
Oh, the precious innocence of childhood. My five year old was sincere in her question after I had been approached in the parking lot after completing our purchases at Petsmart.
As my son (age 11), two daughters (5 and 2) and I neared our van a woman rushed up to me and through well-rehearsed gasps, sobs and tears, explained that she had just been released from jail and was desperately trying to get back home to Everett (a city north of Seattle, about an hour from where I was in Tacoma), but her car needed gas and she didn’t have any money. “Could you please help me out? That man over there (she gestured at someone) gave me $5. The police gave me a quarter (she opened her palm to show me the shiny coin). But I don’t want to get arrested for panhandling and go back to jail. Please, sir, anything would help.”
Thanks to my son’s maturity and good sense, my little kids had gotten into their car seats while this charade played out in the parking lot beside my van. I told the woman (truthfully) that I didn’t have any cash on me and before I could say anything more she walked off in the direction of some other people in the parking lot.
My kids have observed me helping out some of the plethora of people who panhandle in our area. They’re frequently standing at a busy intersection at the exit from that very shopping area (there’s also a Target, Hobby Lobby and a dozen other stores there) and at the end of exit ramps. On more than one occasion we have brought hot food and coffee to them. We’ve prepared bag lunches and had them in the van to give out during our excursions. Last year my oldest daughter wrote a song describing some memories she had of us helping homeless people and I blogged about it (read it here). Some might say I’m a sucker for trying to help those who appear to be in a rough spot. I’m guilty of giving a dollar or two to people at times because I choose to believe that people can actually be good and that it’s okay to try to be kind to others. I try to model compassion and kindness for others so my children will grow up with similar values and a willingness to help out others.
“But, Daddy, why didn’t you help her? Why didn’t you give her any money?” My sweet girl just wanted to help that woman. Unfortunately, I had to gently tell her the harsh reality that not all people are honest or trustworthy. In this particular case, this very same woman had approached me as I had returned to my car after shopping at Target with my 14 year old daughter and our exchange student. She told me the exact same story, only this most recent time had been more polished with emotion and tears and that shiny quarter. That previous time I had chosen to give her a couple of bucks (I told you I’m a sucker sometimes), even though red flags were there. I remember that I told her “God bless you”, wished her well and shook her hand. She seemed to be sincerely grateful and warmly returned my hand shake while I gave her the small amount of cash. I remember saying a quick prayer for her as I climbed into my van. After that exchange my 14 year old daughter and I talked about the issue of panhandlers and how there were multiple reports of people scamming and earning crazy amounts of money by
playing off preying on the generosity, goodwill and kindness of strangers. Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me. I thought about confronting this scam artist and getting all up in her business. Maybe I would have if I hadn’t been in a time pinch to get my van from the repair shop before it closed in 20 minutes. It’s probably better that I just left it alone. I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered to her or been the epiphany that turned her life around. I likely would’ve come off as just another sanctimonious white guy. In reality, I wasn’t really angry. Rather, I was filled with sadness for this woman who was essentially stealing from others. I don’t understand the mindset that one must have to choose this type of behavior, but, ultimately, I feel sorry for her. Still, the next time someone asks me for some help I’ll think about it. I’m less likely to reach into my pocket for any cash because of these kinds of experiences although I’m still willing to look for a meaningful way to help others. I wish there was some sort of happy ending to this story, a way that I could neatly wrap it in a bow that makes us all feel better. But that’s not the reality of this situation. Instead, I’m left with a heavy heart that I had to explain to my five year old that not all people tell the truth and that they are willing to lie to others to get some money. But, I’m glad that she could begin to learn that lesson in a safe environment with me to help her process it.
As we pulled away from our parking spot I noticed the woman walking across the parking lot toward her next Target. Literally and figuratively.
This is a tough one. You want to teach your kids to be sympathetic and helpful but not suckers. Hard to explain when they’re too young. I’ve finally decided that I will only donate food or clothing to those begging on streets. Some in the past have declined while many have graciously accepted. Makes me feel better. Hopefully it’s helping!