Jon and I were walking up Broadway when Jimmy called out to us to take his picture. He sang a little tune and was hard to resist. I gave him a handful of change from my pocket and Jon took his picture.
I began carrying change in my pockets on the second day in NYC. I’ve spent enough time in New York to be aware of the homeless there, but this visit I noticed something different.
One morning I watched a woman with a suitcase on wheels check out a hooded sweatshirt that lay on top of a garbage pail. She held it up and inspected it then put it back on the garbage. I also began noticing bags of food next to the garbage pails on street corners. I watched a woman in a small encampment of homeless people sniff at what looked like a full vegetarian lunch in a styrofoam container, deciding whether or not to eat it. One friend told me how she had 2 bags of potato chips left over from an office lunch and offered it to a homeless man who told her he didn’t eat potato chips.
So what I was seeing that was different was the idea of choice.
You hear many ideas about what to give and what not to give to the homeless. Some say not to give money because it will only go to alcohol or drugs, that you should support organizations that help the homeless instead. Other people will give them only what they think is appropriate, like food or clothes. But I remember reading a story once about a woman who met a homeless woman whose shoes where falling apart. It was the winter the woman offered to buy the homeless woman a pair of winter boots and not wanting to just give her the money took her to a shoe store. But the homeless woman didn’t want a pair of winter boots, she wanted a pair of red high heal red lace up boots. I don’t remember if she got the red boots or not, but I remember thinking that the real connection came not in one person trying to help another, but in the human desire for personal choice. That as long as a person has choice, she has dignity. And choice isn’t always about things, but often about how one decides to behave in a situation where there is no choice.
I walked by a lot of people begging on the street and some who were passed out on the sidewalk. Some of them looked scary or dangerous, and I would look the other way. But some, like Jimmy, called out to me. He seemed safe and interesting. After talking to him a while I noticed he was wearing a bright white tee shirt and clean pants. I don’t even know if he was homeless or just begging. And I don’t know what he did with the money I gave him.
I guess I chose to give him money because of who he is and I guess he gets to chose what he wants to do with that money.