Should I worry about the stranger who knocked on my door?
November 26, 2012 2:51 AM   Subscribe

How much should I worry about the sketchy character I paid to clean leaves from our front yard this afternoon? I haven't had a sleepless night in ages, but my brain has decided to obsess over the possibly foolish thing I did today.

I live in a pretty nice neighborhood (suburb just north of Chicago), perhaps in one the older houses on the street, with my 12-year old car parked out front. A fellow knocked on the door today, took a moment to tell me he was "Jamaican but not a scary guy or anything", and that he had recently lost his job and had a $55 bill of some kind due, and could he clean the leaves from my yard.

He said he was one of my neighbors, and also that he knew my immediate neighbor. I prefer to think well of people, and am also perhaps less skeptical than I should be, so took him at his word. He said $30 to clear the leaves, I said ok, but didn't need anything in the back. He also needed a rake, and a bag. I gave him both. After about 20 minutes he knocked again to say he was done. I took a look. It was not a particularly well done job but the leaves had been pretty bad, and now they were mostly cleared, I figured he was down on his luck so whatever.

Before I gave him the $30 he asked if I could "lend" him another $20. I said sorry, I really couldn't, but that I would give him $35, which I did. I noticed at this point he had a friend with him, who was waiting on the sidewalk. We waved at each other.

Then he asked for a bottle of water. I was a bit bugged by the $20 thing and was finally realizing that probably his story wasn't true at all. (For instance, he does not live "a couple houses down" because I walk my dog and I have seen most of the people on the closest blocks. Also, if he was a neighbor, why not go home for a drink?) But I went to the kitchen and filled an empty water bottle from the fridge. Then I went back and realized I had left the door ajar, so he could probably see the guitar equipment in the front room. This was very stupid. Why did I do that?

When I handed him the water he sort of perched on the railing and tried to make some small talk, in a way that made me uncomfortable. He made some comment about how I lived in a nice house. I thanked him, said I had to go, and closed the door. He said I'll see you again, when it snows. I realized how I should have made it more clear I did not live alone.

We actually live on a fairly busy street, the houses are close together, and in fact there is a city street light directly in front of our house. Do I need to worry about this guy breaking in or something? Any calming words appreciated. Stories about how you had a break-in maybe less appreciated unless you have some practical advice to go with it!

Sorry for the ramble. No sleep and I have to get up for work in about 2.5 hours. Meh.
posted by Glinn to Home & Garden (26 answers total)
I don't think you've got too much to worry about. If I were casing a house out for a robbery, I certainly wouldn't make small-talk with the resident - it'd just make it far easier for them to pick me out of a line-up.

I mean, he could, possibly, be casing your place on behalf of an accomplice. But there are certainly easier ways to do that.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:56 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

If I were trying to prepare your house for robbery I would want to do the very best I could not to make myself memorable to you, and not talk to you at all. Goodness, let alone beg from you. This bloke cleared leaves and took some money from you and that's a pretty good day's work.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:00 AM on November 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

I can't comment on the other aspects of the situation, but I'd think it's pretty standard to offer people a drink of water after they've cleaned up your yard (or for them to ask for a drink if it's not offered).
posted by hot soup girl at 3:00 AM on November 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Do I need to worry about this guy breaking in or something?

I'd say no more than you already did. You gave a guy $35 to move some leaves. No big deal.
posted by valkyryn at 3:16 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I honestly don't know and I don't want to advise you against your better instincts, but the vast majority of the interactions I have with homeless people in Chicago follow this general pattern: assuring you that they're not a "bad person," making up a false just-so story that will simultaneously allow you to trust them while showing that they're down on their luck, asking for some amount of money (in this case in exchange for work), and then escalating the amount of money/stuff they can get out of you until you're like "yeah okay, no." I got fleeced a few times when I first moved to the city and from then on I would just give what I could give (or apologize if I could give nothing) and move on because I have a finite amount of money and time.

So if this is a homeless guy who was looking for jobs he could do to make a decent amount money one afternoon, it fits that general pattern pretty well. You might want to ask the police if there's a trend of this kind of behavior where you are but it depends on how you feel about police. I've never had a violent or otherwise threatening interaction with a homeless person-- sometimes when I'm like, "sorry, no," I'll get a few bad words thrown my way, but they don't turn around and mug me or anything. It seems like this kind of behavior is usually not antecedent to crime.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:18 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

While I have no idea whether or not these jokers are going to come back and steal your guitars, not all thieves are particularly smart or are able to think strategically - just because they chatted with you and gave you a good look at their faces does not mean they will not come back and try to break in. Lots of dumb thieves out there.

It's possible that they are still canvassing the neighbourhood - why not give the police a call and get them to take a look around?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:36 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's cyber-monday so you could get a good deal on a security camera system that can email you when it detects someone entering your house.
posted by Sophont at 3:49 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would feel worried too, because you're just trying to help someone out, and they push and push the boundaries until you feel like you're out on a limb and vulnerable. I totally get that.

Probably everything will be fine, though. You should only worry about snow because I do think they may be back. If you give him the tools and conversation, for $50 or so he'll halfway shovel the snow! And hey, maybe you have a little side work for his friend out there on the sidewalk? Or just a spare $20?

So here's what to worry about: Crafting and memorizing what you will do when that happens. Set all expectations and boundaries in that first response. If you want to help him out or you do need work done, set out the work and pay agreement upfront. If you don't want conversation after paying, say you're really busy and can't chat. If you don't want him to work for you, tell him you have no work for him but you wish him the very best. Just be clear and firm.
posted by Houstonian at 4:06 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the kind answers. And I've definitely run the snow conversation through my mind already about a dozen times. We usually shovel the snow pretty quickly because it's required (sidewalk). But if he shows up before we get to it, I'm just going to say no, thank you, money's tight (which it is) and we're going to shovel our own snow.

I've already gotten an email back from my neighbor, who assured me she does not know him, and that she got a similar story from him. Also that he made her uncomfortable too. (She lives with her husband, kids, and very large dog). We agreed to call the police if we see him again. So I'm not totally crazy, but probably won't lose any more sleep over it. Thanks again.
posted by Glinn at 4:57 AM on November 26, 2012

This is pretty common practice in my mother's neighborhood. She has some nice if somewhat dicey fellows who come and do yardwork and the like for her. Some of them continually push boundaries, some don't. She's very good about it, and sticks to her rules that she's set—no lending money, they can show up when she says they can, they get paid when they're done working, and there's no bathroom privileges—but of course there's some minor worry and they do tend to show up at odd hours, etc. Most of these guys are good dudes on hard times.

In fact! This is a thing I recall from Evanston. As you well know, Evanston is basically two towns, which read (somewhat inaccurately) as rich and poor, although the racial divide of those two towns is pretty explicit. So if you're going to go looking for work, you cross over McCormack north and go up to Noyes or what have you, or you cross the El and go over to Sheridan and Michigan, and then door to door it in the nicer parts of town. I wouldn't worry about this for a second; in fact it'd be a nice thing if you could make a pal who needs work like this, for when money isn't as tight as it is now.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:07 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where I live, this is totally normal. Homeless guys (and/or guys looking for drug money) go around and ask if you need any yardwork done. Sometimes they have a sob story, sometimes not. Sometimes they have their own equipment, sometimes not. Never had a break-in after someone did work for me. My thinking is, if they wanted to break in, they'd try and do it without me getting a good look at them. Personally, I don't think there's any reason to call the cops on someone who goes door to door looking for yardwork, but that's just me.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:27 AM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nope, these guys aren't organized enough to break into your house. They're just guys who are hustling. Today it's leaves, then it will be snow. Whatever. They need a few bucks for this or that, and they'll go into a neighborhood until they find someone.

When we first moved into our house a guy in a busted up Monte Carlo came up with a 3-Guys and Mower business card and offered to clear out our yard for $40. I was ALL over that, the previous owner had left a disaster.

I even asked if the guy would come back regularly, and I never saw him again. We chatted for about 30 minutes while the other guy did the lawn stuff.

Super-common in urban areas, and pretty harmless if you don't think too hard about what they're doing with the money. (I hope it's the light bill, not crack...)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:07 AM on November 26, 2012

We had this happen in likely the same Chicago suburb as you. It may well be the same guy. We had two experiences with two different guys. One escalated to constant visits, borrowing money, etc.. Finally we just had to tell him, very firmly, that we wouldn't be giving him anything else and to please stop coming. It was unpleasant and worried me as well, but it ended there. The second guy asked to shovel some snow. We told him it would be okay as long as it was a one time thing because of our previous experience. He said fine, did a nice job, and we never saw him again. On the one hand, our thought was these are people looking for honest work and we wanted to help them out. But our first experience was so unpleasant that I would probably never agree to this again unless you make it clear that it won't become a regular thing.
posted by walla at 7:07 AM on November 26, 2012

I should add that we didn't have any problems with break-ins etc. and we think the guys are probably harmless, but we have three dogs and tenants and are not a great burglary target.
posted by walla at 7:12 AM on November 26, 2012

Another vote for totally normal. When I lived in Chicago this was standard operating procedure for panhandlers.

It's unsettling — especially if you're not used to it — because it breaks a lot of social rules. People are supposed to take "no" for an answer! People are supposed to accept help humbly and graciously, and not ask for more than you've already given! It's really easy to walk away from that sort of interaction feeling a little creeped out, like "Ugh, what's that guy's deal? Something isn't right here."

I find it helps to think of it like used-car-salesman behavior. When you buy something from a really pushy (but legally operating) salesman, you sometimes walk away feeling creeped out or manipulated. But you probably don't go on and worry that the salesman is going to break into your house at night. (Even though, hey, he has your address! And knows roughly how much you earn! And maybe even where you work!) You just acknowledge that, yeah, it feels gross to get a hard sell from someone, and you say "Man what a creep" and move on.

I'd do the same thing here. Yeah, you feel frustrated and manipulated, and that's completely legitimate, but you can mentally file this guy away as "pushy slimy salesman" rather than "sinister con artist" or "member of a vicious burglary ring," because a salesman is basically what he is: someone who comes on really strong with a contrived sales pitch and won't take "no" for an answer.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:17 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

You hired him as a favor to him and then he pushed his luck and asked for more favors. Yeah, that's irritating as heck. But they're not doing anything particularly wrong. Lying about being your neighbor? Ehh, I've never heard a sales pitch, anywhere, that didn't involve similar levels of stretching the truth.

They can ask. You can say no, or you can say yes and set limits. But it's also okay to not be comfortable hiring strangers to do yardwork, and you don't have to come up with any excuses beyond "no, thank you."
posted by desuetude at 7:36 AM on November 26, 2012

It's okay to trust your gut, and respond by making sure your home is secure; it's always a good idea to enhance home security. Then get some rest because it's probably fine, and you've done what you can.
posted by theora55 at 7:38 AM on November 26, 2012

I don't think you need to be too worried. If he was planning to rob your house, he wouldn't be likely to spend time with you so that you could easily identify him. I mean, your house exists, it's out there, the fact that it exists isn't a secret, and if it's fairly well taken care of, it's a safe bet that you have valuables inside. Do you see what I mean?

I understand why you feel uncomfortable, but I would like you to consider holding off on calling the police if you see him again unless he actually does something bad. I mean, doing a half-assed job isn't a crime, and whatever his real situation, he probably does need the money; at least he's trying to work for it. I've known lots of rough-and-tumble homeless guys and most of them are harmless- they're just people. Fucked-up people, sometimes, but still just folks, you know?

My biggest concern would be that you paid him extra for doing a bad job; that sets a bad precedent. I'd have laughed when he asked for more money, said something in a joking tone of voice like "what! You missed half of the leaves and you want me to pay extra! No way!", given him the drink of water, and chatted for a bit. It's important to set boundaries, but you can do it nicely.
posted by windykites at 8:21 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

We agreed to call the police if we see him again.

Why the hell would you do that? You didn't tell him not to come back or anything. If you want you can tell him not to come back and after that you can call the cops.

Look, whether or not his story is true, he's clearly down in his luck and needs the money. Which he's trying to work for, if somewhat incompetently. The chances are good he's got mental/social problems and it's not unreasonable that he made you feel uncomfortable, but he's done nothing wrong! The last thing he needs is to be hassled by the cops for trying to get some work.
posted by cmoj at 11:15 AM on November 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Another former Evanstonian here. One thing that happens, unfortunately, is that the train allows people to come up from Chicago, for good or ill. I don't think this was ill, exactly, but it's part of the general panhandling problem that the downtown has tried to tamp down with varying strategies and degrees of success. There are also some social service destinations (like one of the shelters) that have issues with people who come to the city, and in some cases are denied (say, for alcohol usage, or other rules violations) and then spread out around town looking for alternative survival options.

You may want to consider how much your sympathy helps fuel this particular dynamic.

My sense is that he accomplished his short con of sorts, a Traveler-style slapdash job and then trying to "upsell" you, so to speak. If you've agreed to $30, why not try to get some more? (I got into one of those with a gas-station "gas money" beggar -- gave him $20, he decided to go for $30, and this was the incident that made me swear off believing sob stories.) He'd done the job, so to speak, and you could easily have stood firm at that point. He can get more out of five minutes haggling with you than even the $60/hr he earned raking, so it's worth a shot. I would really have expressed disappointment at the incomplete job and insisted he finish before payment and would not have increased what I gave him particularly given the bad faith he displayed. So this wasn't a really good service transaction, as that goes. But it isn't by any means an indicator of potential burglary.

I do hope you know not to let someone like this inside the house, ever.
posted by dhartung at 12:12 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

the vast majority of the interactions I have with homeless people in Chicago follow this general pattern

I concur. I got that same progression on the el and just walking around downtown in Chicago, almost every day. It was so regular and predictable that when I moved to Boston, I shocked my room mate once by saying "I'm sorry, I don't know" and walking away quickly when someone asked me for directions on the street. (Apparently, this is not a thing that happens as much in Boston; in Chicago, if a stranger asked me for directions, they probably also wanted the bus fare to get there.)

That said, what you're describing doesn't sound that dangerous. It's a scam, but the people who are going to rob your house are unlikely to scam you first. The people who are going to break in don't want you to remember that shady guy who wanted to rake your leaves and then wouldn't go away. He was probably just going door to door throughout the neighborhood, and you were home. And he probably needed the help for some reason or other - I tend to think when people are asking me for money, the reason they give is not all that important. The fact that they needed it badly enough to ask a stranger is what moves me.

I would say, you did a nice thing and got a reasonably well-raked yard out of it; no need to miss any sleep over it. Further, Robert Frost would agree with me.
posted by kythuen at 12:12 PM on November 26, 2012

I can't comment on the other aspects of the situation, but I'd think it's pretty standard to offer people a drink of water after they've cleaned up your yard (or for them to ask for a drink if it's not offered).
I've used professional lawn services and high-school kids looking to make some money (same with snow removal) for almost 20 years now and I've never had any of the workers, professional or otherwise, ask me for a drink.

Personally, I don't think there's any reason to call the cops on someone who goes door to door looking for yardwork, but that's just me.
There might be local laws prohibiting such solicitation, the aspiring workers might need a permit of some sort, etc. What if homeless guy injures himself on your property?

As far as him coming back to rob you, perhaps the chances are slight, but just as an anecdote, I'll mention that a few years ago the small company I worked at was visited by a seemingly homeless/down-on-his-luck looking to do odd jobs. We had none for him; he asked to use the restroom. We let him. He left. Later that week the office was burglarized after hours and several computers were stolen, along with an extension ladder (?), a boom box and some autographed baseball cards my boss kept on his desk. The security camera footage revealed that lo-and-behold, Mr. Down On His Luck and two friends were the culprits. (The ever-helpful police not only caught - or bothered to look for - the perps, they told us "They left some valuable stuff behind, so they'll probably be back. Best get a better alarm and a big dog or something."
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:20 PM on November 26, 2012

We agreed to call the police if we see him again.

Yeah, I didn't really mean I would call the police to try to get them to haul him in. What I really meant is if I saw him again, I would call the police to see if they've had reports of similar issues, or burglaries, in my area. I am not sorry I gave the guy a few bucks, which I've done before and will do again, but this time just seemed creepier than normal to me.

The advice above to stick to the agreed price is a good one. I posted this question for advice of that sort and I appreciate all that was given. (Hiya to the Evanston peeps. I actually live less than a mile from Asbury/Western and Howard - very close to Roger's Park and a nicely mixed neighborhood, I think.)
posted by Glinn at 1:10 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Damn, homeless work solicitors are expensive in the Chicago suburbs. I usually get asked for $10 to rake the entire front yard or shovel the entire 150 feet of sidewalk.

I think your homeless guy is gouging you.
posted by caryatid at 1:56 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't be surprised if, in future, you have to be quite firm about the price. I find when it comes to saying "no" to these fellas, the third time's usually the charm- what I do is be a little less friendly with each refusal until they get that, just like when the puppy begs for chocolate, it ain't gonna happen. Don't let the pushiness scare you unless they're actually being scary, at which point you can just shut your door.
posted by windykites at 4:32 PM on November 26, 2012

a few years ago the small company I worked at was visited by a seemingly homeless/down-on-his-luck looking to do odd jobs. We had none for him; he asked to use the restroom. We let him. He left. Later that week the office was burglarized after hours

Oh, I don't think that's really a fair comparison -- the theft you describe was undoubtedly upsetting for the owner and employees, but burglarizing an office after hours is still much less aggressive, less risky, and less personal of a violation than burglarizing someone's home.

Admittedly, I'm more than a little leery about involving the police for nuisance complaints like this, where the risk of unjust treatment due to race/class profiling is disproportionately high, and the OP has the power to avoid a repeat of the situation completely on their own.
posted by desuetude at 8:50 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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