When I was a little girl, probably in third or fourth grade, I remember driving home from school with my father on a cold and snowy late afternoon. The snow was falling fast, the wind was blowing it all around, and the plows had not yet begun to catch up. It was a nasty drive.
As Dad and I pulled off the freeway onto a city street, he noticed an elderly lady walking into the wind, struggling to carry her bags of groceries. Dad pulled the car over to the unplowed curb, leaned over to the passenger side, rolled down the window, and offered the lady a ride home. She accepted, and Dad helped her into the car with her groceries. I remember her panting and being out of breath from fighting the wind while carrying her burden. Dad asked her where she lived, and while I couldn’t understand her, he could, and he drove her the few blocks to her home. After he helped her out of our car and into her home, we continued slipping and sliding our way home.
I’ve never forgotten that.
Today has been a cool, rainy day. As I walked into Target this morning, the rain was steady but mist-like, and the breeze had quieted down a bit. Still, it was damp and icky outside.
As Jujubee and I walked into the store, I noticed a homeless man sitting silently next to the store leaning against the store’s outside wall. It was sheltered there, and out of the rain and wind. Unlike most homeless people in CA, he had nothing with him. No shopping cart stuffed with plastic bags of who-knows what, no heavy coat, no garbage-bag poncho, no bottle of water in his hand, no handmade cardboard sign asking for money. He simply sat there, with his clothing, skin, and hair the same color of dirty brown…
As I usually do with homeless people, I avoided eye contact with him as I walked into the store. But I noticed how different he seemed from most homeless people. I felt compelled to help him. I thought about how difficult it must be for a homeless person when no one makes eye contact with you. My husband and I had just talked the night before about how important quality eye contact is in conversation. I thought about how invisible homeless people must feel, sitting there where everyone is walking, and yet no one notices you.
As I walked through the aisles of the store, I decided that if he was still sitting there when I got back, I would take him into the store with me and buy him a meal at the small Pizza Hut Express located just inside the door. There were lots of people around there, including security guards, so if I had any kind of trouble, I would have help. I could have just given him money, but my husband and I have a general rule of not giving money to homeless people. We’ll give them food or bus passes or things like that, but we don’t give out cash.
I finished what I needed to do, and walked out of the store. I looked to the side to see if the man was still there, but he was gone. I thought to myself, “Oh, well,” said a little prayer for him, and felt a little guilty that I hadn’t gone back to help him when I first thought of it.
After loading my daughter and my puchase into the car, I opened up a granola bar for Jujubee, and opened up another one for myself. I started to back out of the parking space, still wondering about where that man was now. As I was checking around behind me, I noticed the homeless man again. He was still sitting against the wall of the store, but further down, hidden by rows of carts in such a way that people walking in and out of the store wouldn’t notice him or be bothered by him.
For a moment, I panicked. This was it. The rubber was meeting the road. I had decided in my heart to help this guy, and now I had the opportunity. Was I going to concretely live my faith by helping this poor man or not?
From a practical perspective, I already had my child strapped into her carseat, and I did need to be home soon to make lunch for Lyd. I had family obligations, and those come first before obligations to strangers. I also had to be conscious of my own safety. However, could I still help this man a little bit?
I checked in my backpack/purse. I had two extra granola bars, and I had some cash in my wallet.
I pulled the car around, stopping it right in front of where the man sat. I left the car running and got out. I walked the few feet over to the man, and asked him, “Are you hungry?” I saw that he was arranging old cigarette butts into rows on the ground.
He looked up at me in surprise. “Yes.”
I gave him the two granola bars with a five dollar bill wrapped around them. I don’t know if I said anything.
He looked up at me and said, “God bless you.” He had really, really blue eyes. They stood out from the rest of his body, because everything else was so brown. I realized he wasn’t very old; he was probably not much older than me. He had shaved sometime in the past week, but he had plenty of stubble on his face.
I was scared, but I allowed him to hold my gaze for a few moments. “God bless you, too,” I choked out. I felt horribly inadaquate.
I got back into my car and stole a glance at him out the passenger side window. He had set the two bars next to himself on the ground and was looking at them.
I shifted my car into drive, put my windshield wipers on, and drove away.
PS. My husband said I did fine to give that homeless man cash. I hope he uses it well.