While enjoying the sunshine talking with friends in a quaint neighborhood in Oakland, a woman approached us and asked, “Can you help me get some hot food?” I replied, “I can give you an orange.” Assuming if she’s really hungry, almost any food would suffice. Instead, she retorted, “Is it hot?” I’m sure my mouth was wide open, shocked at her audacity to come over and ask strangers to help her get hot food and have attitude when offered fruit.
Why is she entitled to other people’s money to buy food at one of the cafe’s?
I forget mental illness likely plays a role.
She wandered away after my offer and chatted with a distinguished man who was sitting on a bench nearby. I watched her wander around asking strangers to help her get food as she munched on jellybeans and randomly talked to passerbyers and to no one in particular about chicken tacos, pollo, pollo tacos as if speaking in Spanish may trigger a different response. She had a newspaper in one hand and a tote back on her right shoulder. With each person, whom she talked to she marked something down as if tallying each person she asked.
This woman distracted me. Friends and I were talking about an array of deep topics including, foreign aid and micro-finance lending in developing countries. We were getting ready to leave and she came over and said bluntly, “Don’t forget about my orange!” “I thought you didn’t want it, you walked away,” I said. “I was talking with my friend Jose.” I handed her the orange. “Thank you, this is the first thing I’ve eaten today (it was 3pm) aside from the jellybeans.” “You very welcome and off I went to cross the street. As I waited for the green light, she said “Thank you” a few more times and I honored her thanks. It was nice to hear words of gratitude yet was reminded why I always hesitate with handing out money but I’ll always part with food if I have it.
While staying in Cape Town, South Africa, both in 2005 and in 2007, I witnessed story telling begging frequently. I rarely saw a person with a sign asking for money but rather a sad story of why they needed some money. One benefit of staying in a place for a while (rather than passing through) is you see daily interactions, shops opening and closing, how morning fades into night and who are the regulars on the street. I lived a block away from Long St and later stayed at a hostel on Long St itself, which is the busiest and most touristy of streets in Cape Town. I had children ask me for money and an anxious young woman ask me for 50 cents for the bus, though we weren’t near a bus stop. My heart went out to her because the anxiousness in her voice made me think how I might be in her shoes. Yet I said, “Sorry” and continued on to the store. I questioned myself, hoping I’d never have to ask a complete stranger for money and hoping, if I did, someone would willingly give. A day later, I saw the same woman with the same turquoise tote, on a different street pushing past people telling the same story, “I need 50 cents to catch the bus.” A few days later, she asked me the same question as I walked by, though I ignored her. She still had an anxiousness about her and I can only imagine the bus money is really code for drugs. Obviously, this is her trademark story and it works most of the time, especially in a frequented tourist city. There’s a reason she wanders the streets almost daily asking for the same thing. Locals learn quickly whose who. As a traveler staying in a place for a while, I quickly learn too.
We always get to choose how we want to respond to people asking for money and I’ve learned you can never really know where the money is going. Maybe it doesn’t matter, yet the the bigger issue becomes, by giving money are we helping individuals stay on the street?
Certainly, this is a bigger equation with multiple variables…
She’s not the only person I encountered who was lying for money. Each time my heart momentarily placed myself in their shoes but I stopped myself from giving.
Now, I’ve taken what I’ve experienced abroad and apply it here. If you’re hungry and ask for my leftovers I’m carrying, I’ll gladly give them away or if I have food to spare, I’ll share. This is how I know if someone is telling the truth. If you’re hungry, you’re not picky!