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Trying to avoid being a Lady Bountiful
November 20, 2007 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Is it condescending to give money and/or food to a homeless person when the haven't actually asked for it?

So, as I was walking home this morning in the gray drizzle I noticed a man sitting under my el station, on a piece of cardboard with his dog, listening to a radio. I have never seen this guy before and there aren't all that many homeless people in my neighborhood.

I sort of smiled at the guy as I walked past, as I normally do to people with cute dogs, and he smiled back at me in a friendly way but made no attempt to engage me in conversation. He definitely wasn't leering at me or trying to get me to come over or anything.

I don't usually give money to homeless people who aren't Streetwise vendors but I'm a sucker for animals and in my mind anyone who's a friend of animals is a friend of mine (and it was clear his dog was well-taken care of). I know it would just be a band-aid solution (and yes I have volunteered at homeless shelters before) but I would like to help this guy and his dog out a bit. However, I don't want to be an insulting asshole since he didn't actually ask me for money.

Do you think I should attempt this or mind my own? For what it's worth, the area where he is is safe and well-lighted with plenty of people passing through, so on the off chance he turned out to be a psycho I think I'd be okay.
posted by Jess the Mess to Human Relations (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
My own take on this is that if they're not actively asking, I normally don't give them anything. But the exception to that is in weather extremes: if it's boiling hot, I may get some water or if it's snowing, I might go in and get them some soup and a sandwich.

Actually, in all honesty, I usually don't donate on the street — instead I just do a monthly donation to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. What with their "$1 equals 4 meals" promotion, I end up figuring that it goes farther than giving on the street might.
posted by WCityMike at 10:24 AM on November 20, 2007


Does everyone have to beg before they get help?

I think it's a very thoughtful, charitable gesture Jess. You're just ahead of the curve.
posted by JaySunSee at 10:28 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


well, how about chatting with the guy for a second. hey, he has a cute dog, what's the story? you should be able to find out if he's in need in no time at all.
posted by krautland at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2007


Don't get mad if he doesn't accept, though. He may have had bad run-ins with people pretending to be Good Samaritans before. But it is a lovely idea. You could invite him to lunch with you.
posted by schroedinger at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why don't you strike up a conversation and ask him if you can help out? After all it doesn't much matter what we think is condescending, but what he thinks is condescending.
posted by waxboy at 10:36 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Keep putting niceness out the world. It's better to get slapped down for it then not doing anything at all.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:54 AM on November 20, 2007 [7 favorites]


Living in a city with no small amount of homeless people (Vancouver), I've seen beggars throw away donations of food before. I've seen this sitting in several different cafes near busier intersections where panhandlers often set up shop. People will someone give the panhandler food (sandwich or muffin or something, wrapped and sealed) instead of money. It seems that about half the time, the panhandler will either scoff at the offer and refuse to take it, or wait until the Good Samaritan is out of sight and throw the food in the nearest garbage can. I can't speak to the universality of this though; many of Vancouver's homeless are feeding drug addictions and looking for money to buy their next fix. Chicago's homeless population might not have this problem to the same degree.

You're more than welcome to help, but be prepared for overt or subtle refusal however. You'll probably increase your chances of help being accepted by striking up a conversation with him first. If you want guarantee of your donation being accepted, give to a reputable local charity.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:56 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Agreeing; it's good to give direct ... I sometimes give unsolicited money if it looks like it would help.
posted by anadem at 11:03 AM on November 20, 2007


Nthing the conversation suggestions. He may appreciate the attention more than money, and at the very least you'll get the story on the dog.

Just up and giving this fella money, however, seems like a pretty strong assumptiom on your part and might be taken as demeaning. Hell, he may not even be homeless.
posted by Pecinpah at 11:03 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Doggie treats, if anything. Then its about you wanting to pet the dog and shower him with affection, rather than a pity reaction.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:17 AM on November 20, 2007


You can likely avoid being condescending if you just ask/offer instead of plunking down What You Have Provided.

You may have a friendlier reception if you frame it as "I was thinking about you and your dog when I was making my lunch -- I made extra in case you wanted some?" (Homeless people often refuse food because they are paranoid for any number of reasons, not because they're not hungry.) Likewise, you could ask if he needs help and offer to share the money you've got on you.
posted by desuetude at 11:23 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


well, how about chatting with the guy for a second

Mandatory. Some homeless people refuse anything that is given without talking to them like a person. There was a homeless woman forcibly hospitalized as crazy, because she was burning money. Turned out she only burned money that was tossed at her wordlessly.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:29 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


There's one homeless fellow here in town-a Vietnam vet-who has been on our streets for years. Almost a decade ago I was working third shift at the Waffle House when he came in for a cup of coffee. A wellmeaning individual tried to give him money and he went ballistic. He left the money on the counter. I think we waitresses wound up splitting it or something. (Turns out he got a govt check and simply preferred to be an urban outdoorsman, literally.)

So all I am saying is, be cautious. All homeless people are not necessarily there for the same reasons.
posted by konolia at 11:33 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


If you want the right answer, you'll have to ask him whether he thought it was condescending (and whether or not he's homeless, but for now, we'll assume he actually was).

When interviewing new guests at a shelter, I countless times heard guys denying that their situation was at all similar to that of anybody else in the place. For some, you'd talk to them a month, 6 months, or a year later and they'd still have the same attitude. Losing your home will hurt your pride. The specifics of the circumstances matter little. It's very possible that this guy still feels bruised, in which case you may have offended him.

On the other hand, maybe the piece of cardboard was a sign he'd been holding up earlier. Maybe you helped him get a room of his own for the night, and saved him from the indignity of sleeping on a tiny mat on the floor 2 feet from a strange guy. Like I said, you'd have to ask him.

In any case, I don't see what his having a dog has to do with anything. It seems odd to me that you mention the dog as the focus of your compassion. Having or not having a dog says nothing about a person's character, just as having or not having a home says nothing about a person's character. And a dog says nothing about how much their owner might need your help.* All you know is that this person chooses to keep a dog around. Well, I do too. Are you going to give me money?

Whether or not you decide to give out money on the street, my advice is to try to remove personal bias from your decisions, because biases typically work against the homeless rather than for them. Whatever the person approaches you looks like, they are a person and have a whole unique set of problems you're never going to be able to understand in the 5 seconds it takes to hand over a quarter.

* - A dog says nothing at all!
posted by dsword at 11:38 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


(walking by, looking through a bag from a restaurant) "Oh, geez. Hey, man, they gave me an extra hamburger. Here, do you want it?"
posted by koeselitz at 11:39 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


That's worked for me a number of times.
posted by koeselitz at 11:43 AM on November 20, 2007


"Do you need any help?" is not condescending to non-seemingly-homeless people. Which see the ubiquitous Crying Girl in the Toilets. You either get "Could you get -- sniff -- my friend from the bar?" or "No, I'm okay." If you did get a "Screw you, lady," in response to "Do you need any help?" from either the crying girl or the homeless guy, it's not something you'd need to lose sleep over.
posted by kmennie at 11:45 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Quasi-related story: After I picked up my daughter from school, we walked from her school to the grocery store like we usually do to get food for the weekend. After getting the food, we went to the bus stop near the mall doors, and that's when I realised I was a dime short of bus fare for the both of us. Normally, I'd just get cash from a bank machine and make the change, but I was flat broke at that point.

Do you think a father, arms full of groceries and his little daughter beside him, could borrow a lousy dime from someone to get home on the bus? No. No one would give me a dime, and one guy shook his head woefully when I asked, as if too loathe to even reply. I couldn't believe it. So my daughter and I had to walk 4 miles in the dark and in a hailstorm with groceries.

It taught me a lot about where many people's hearts are. Many people will complain about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but their own hearts are full of hate and suspicion. It's depressing. The world needs more compasionate people like you Jess.

I realise this post might be removed from the ask.metafilter moderators because it doesn't directly answer your question, but by the telling of this story I wanted you to know you are awesome.
posted by JaySunSee at 11:47 AM on November 20, 2007 [5 favorites]


I've given extra cookies, sandwiches, whatever I had many times to folks who were on their corners with their signs. Nine times out of ten it's gratefully accepted. One time a fellow had asked me for money on my way into a convenience store. I came out with a muffin and a Dr. Pepper and told him I'd bought a muffin. He asked me for the Dr. Pepper instead. I walked away, thinking him an ungrateful ass.

I don't think I've ever offered unsolicited, but there's no harm in it. I wouldn't couch it in clever turns of phrase or make up a story. Walk by with your extra burger and say "hey, I bought an extra burger for you -- would you like it?" Replace burger with dog chow, coffee, $20 as appropriate.

That reminds me now... I had the same Dr. Pepper situation happen another time, except I had bought an extra ham sandwich and offered it to a woman outside. Turns out she was a vegetarian. Beggars can be choosers, it seems.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 11:51 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Does everyone have to beg before they get help?

If the guy was in no apparent physical trouble, then no, it was inappropriate to give him money, etc., before he asked for help.

Even if the guy was too bashful to ask you for money, he isn't going to starve to death - there are soup kitchens out there.

And I'm wondering what sort of "relationship" you are initiating with the fellow, anyway. Every time he sees you, he is going to expect a handout.

It would be tougher (but more relevant) to volunteer at a food bank or shelter. The people running those things all the help they can get. And it's a bit of a more equal dynamic - you can approach them as peers and see if they need the help you can give them.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:54 AM on November 20, 2007


::Sigh:: Thanks for your responses everyone. I went back to look for them but they were already gone. I'm quite sad actually as I was looking forward to some possible doggy-petting action.

Even though, as a very shy person, it's hard for me to gear myself up to approach strangers, rest assured I would never just thrust money at someone without stopping to say hello first.

I think, as many of you suggested, talking with him a little while and petting the dog and then telling him, "I don't mean to be patronizing, but could you use any help?" will be the plan if I see him again, which I hope to do.
posted by Jess the Mess at 12:28 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Having or not having a dog says nothing about a person's character, just as having or not having a home says nothing about a person's character. And a dog says nothing about how much their owner might need your help.* All you know is that this person chooses to keep a dog around. Well, I do too. Are you going to give me money?

I agree that not having a dog says nothing about a person's character but I do think having a pet is quite often, though unfortunately not always, an indicator of at least a partially good character because it shows that a person has the capacity to be kind and loving and uses it. Unfortunately, I can't help every homeless person I see, so I guess I am guilty of using bias to select those I do. I see what you're saying though. A person might not look very sympathetic to me, no dog, no obvious disability, etc. but still be a good person and need the help just as much.
posted by Jess the Mess at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2007


Quasi-related story: After I picked up my daughter from school, we walked from her school to the grocery store like we usually do to get food for the weekend. After getting the food, we went to the bus stop near the mall doors, and that's when I realised I was a dime short of bus fare for the both of us.

I imagine the bus driver would have still let you ride.
posted by matkline at 1:14 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides actually ranked different types of charity based on maintaining the dignity of the recipient. From least to most honorable:

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. When the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.

3. When the donor is aware of the recipient's identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. When the donor and recipient are unknown to each other.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

So the Jewish tradition considers unsolicited donations one step better than solicited donations. Whether you think these rules are relevant in the 21st century is of course up to you.
posted by SBMike at 1:32 PM on November 20, 2007 [13 favorites]


Oh yeah, I want to second the suggestion to give him doggie treats or a little thing of dog food.
posted by schroedinger at 2:21 PM on November 20, 2007


"I don't mean to be patronizing, but could you use any help?" will be the plan if I see him again, which I hope to do.

I think this is a bad idea. You start off the conversation by displaying a weakness. You have no idea who these people are or what they are willing to do. It is your assumption they will think you are being patronizing. This ain't the 12th century, where people were begging on the street because the economy could not support them. I hate to say it, but in the 21st century, street culture is less predictable, or more predictably violent.

Better to cut to the chase and ask: "You don't need any help, do you?"
posted by KokuRyu at 2:44 PM on November 20, 2007


I don't think it's patronizing. Especially if you give them food. Who doesn't appreciate food? I give restaurant leftovers to homeless people all the time, and I've never once found somebody to be unappreciative.
posted by number9dream at 5:01 PM on November 20, 2007



"I don't mean to be patronizing, but could you use any help?" will be the plan if I see him again, which I hope to do.


I think this is a great plan, please report back.
posted by onalark at 5:39 PM on November 20, 2007


Last year there was a boy in his early 20s with a dog who were homeless and staying in my neighborhood. I talked to them sometimes, gave change when I could, and if I was busy would just walk by and apologize that I was in a hurry. A few times I gave him lollipops from the bank, too, since that's where he hung out.

I would walk up to the dude next time you see him and ask, "Can I pet your dog?" If he says yes. pet the dog and initiate conversation. If he says no, say, "well I have this treat [pull out treat from pocket], would it be okay if I give it to him?" If he says yes, initiate conversation. If he says no, ask if you can leave the biscuit for him to give to the dog.

I doubt you will get "no" all three times. If you do, the guy does not want you to bother him. The only thing you can do is leave a can of dog food someplace near where you see him. Do this at a time when they are not around. Please be sure that it is a pull-tab can! He may not have a can opener (or at least have one on him at the time).

If you initiate conversation, ask about the dog, ask if they have a place to stay and if they are eating ok. There are a few homeless guys with dogs here, and they often see themselves and the dog as a sort of team. So it softens it to say "Are you guys staying warm? Do you guys have someplace you can go at night when its cold?" etc. A lot of shelters don't allow dogs, same with a lot of soup kitchens. The boy I met would not go anywhere his dog could not go (so I was told by a lady at the bank who looked out for him and bought him food sometimes).

Being on the street isn't always a permanent thing, so don't assume that the guy is hungry. Ask if you can bring them some food. If you're thinking of bringing some money, ask him if that would be ok. You're very thoughtful to ask this question and to be concerned.
posted by SassHat at 6:44 PM on November 20, 2007


I had a neighbor who did this. He had a dog and a piece of cardboard and would sit in the city centre, sometimes making music, sometimes watching people. He was a bit strange, probably. But he was not homeless. The best way to contact him would be to talk to him about his dog and go from there.
posted by davar at 1:26 AM on November 21, 2007


How very kind of you to think of helping. I agree with those who say you should offer him help regardless of whether he asks. I think I'd be more likely to help someone who's quietly trying to take care of himself (and his dog) and not all up in my face begging, than those who stand on the corners and harass every passerby.

Maybe compliment him on his kindness in taking care of an animal, and tell him you're an animal lover as well. I think it would be appropriate to give him a gift of food, blankets, etc. and maybe a small bag of dry dog food - or to simply ask if there's anything you can get for him.
posted by Ruby Doomsday at 12:25 PM on November 21, 2007


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