During the Great Depression hobos created a sign language — symbols scratched on doorposts and in the dirt — to alert fellow homeless men of hazards and havens along the way. A cat drawn on a gate meant “A kind lady lives here,” signaling that a meal would be offered if the weary traveler but knocked.
I aspire to be that kind lady. Every time I want to turn my back on a panhandler extending his hand — and instinctively I do flinch — I hear the small, insistent voice of my humanity prodding me to respond. Jesus was pretty clear: “As you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” There’s no wiggle room. The brother or sister who asks for our help or our cash may be ill-spoken, dirty, substance-addicted, odoriferous or otherwise repulsive, but that’s no excuse, I thought, for not helping, not giving.
The sad reality in these uncertain times, though, is that sometimes it may be prudent to ignore an outstretched hand. When we give indiscriminately, we may enable a destructive habit. We may enrich an able adult who chooses panhandling over working for a paycheck. We may even put ourselves and our families at risk. I know; it happened to me.
One summer evening a few years ago I was weeding the front garden when a slender, haggard woman approached. She admired my flowers, then waved a tattered flyer and explained she was collecting donations for breast cancer research — and, in fact, she herself was a cancer survivor.
My gut told me the flyer had been fished out of a trash can and pressed into service. I sensed that the woman had “issues,” as we say euphemistically, and probably wanted cash to support an addiction. But she was desperate enough to try a clumsy ruse, so I went inside and came back with a $20 bill. She thanked me profusely.
End of self-congratulatory tale? Of course not. The same woman returned to our house more than once in the following weeks. She needed a loan. She needed more money for the cancer fund. She might have to go to the hospital and had no insurance.
Once she brought along a seedy-looking male friend who stared appraisingly through the screened door into our living room — the room where our three children played and watched TV. Alarmed by such bald interest, I turned the woman down that night. But I had given once, and she knew I was soft.
The next time she came, my husband answered the door. He told the woman never to return or he would call the police. She didn’t, and I felt safer. I understood that charity requires limits, that sometimes the risk incurred by giving outweighs an idealistic desire to be “a kind lady” to every stranger. I learned a valuable lesson.
Or did I?
Recently when I was home during my lunch break, our doorbell rang. A woman dressed in baggy shorts and flip-flops stood on our porch. "I used to do some work for a lady who lived here,” she said. I explained that we’d lived there for nine years and I had never seen her before.
At this, she dropped all pretense. “I need some money,” she said, looking at her toes. “Do you have any work I could do for five dollars?”
My mind raced. Not again. She’ll keep coming back. She’s casing our house. She’s looking for an easy mark.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I gave money to a woman once and she wouldn’t leave us alone, so I don’t do that anymore.” I wished her good luck and closed the door.
“I don’t do that anymore.”
As I drove back to work, what I’d done — or failed to do — began to seem grotesque. A stranger had come to our house and asked for help, and I had turned her away. What would it have cost me to give her a few dollars? Perhaps a small portion of my peace of mind. What was such minor discomfort compared to having no home, or being hungry, or feeling forgotten and unloved? In a heartless economy and a complicated world, any one of us could be reduced to asking a stranger for help.
I wish I could run down the street after my visitor this very minute waving five dollars, 10 dollars, 20 dollars. I wish I could say to her face, “Please. Let me help you.”
Instead, these days I put a few dollars in the palm of any man or woman holding a scribbled “Homeless” sign at a red light. Sucker? Maybe. But I can live with that.
“If today you hear my voice,” advises the psalm, “harden not your hearts.” Whatever it costs me to say “yes” to a beggar is a pittance compared to the privilege of being kind.
Anne Diffily is a freelance writer from Warwick, Rhode Island, and a former editor of Brown Alumni Magazine.