Did I violate a social norm in helping this homeless person?
October 11, 2013 6:29 PM   Subscribe

What's socially acceptable in terms of giving food assistance to homeless people? What should be socially acceptable?

So, I was on my way into a co-op market where I live to get some dinner and a lady outside told me she needed some money. She seemed a bit out of it and I told her I couldn't give her any money, but if she was needed something to eat I could get her some food. She wanted something to eat. I was at a grocery store so it seemed to make sense that she could come in and get what she wanted and I'd pay for it.

So I guess she was a little more strung out than I had noticed initially because she was behaving erratically in the store and lots of people around were visibly uncomfortable. Like she asked me to help her get some chicken because she found it too difficult to use the tongs. Her behavior didn't faze me too deeply but I ended up feeling very awkward about imposing on the store and other customers in a sense. It made me question myself. I don't mind having a conversation with people on the street and I feel like I'm aware of the stigma of homelessness and want to understand what it feels like to be invisible in a sense. We ate and talked but I don't get the impression that any of it broke through the addicted/craving headspace she seemed to be in. It's like it only served to make a bunch of people uncomfortable.

Then as a result of acting from that place, I ended up feeling that I pulled the store and the surrounding strangers into having to deal with the situation, and just got this ick feeling of having broken some social rule. I guess I'm trying to process my feelings about it. And if figure out if I did break a social rule, and whether or not it is the sort of social rule that should be broken or needs to be left well enough alone.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might have made some folks uncomfortable, but you fed someone in need. I wouldn't feel bad about that for any length of time.
posted by xingcat at 6:32 PM on October 11, 2013 [70 favorites]

Fuck social rules. You did a good job.
posted by popcassady at 6:37 PM on October 11, 2013 [34 favorites]

The only squicky thing would be hygiene related, like, dirty hands should not touch communal food utensils.

Otherwise, I would not have minded AT ALL.

I think you're great.
posted by jbenben at 6:38 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

She's a human being. She went into a public market and ate. If her behaviour was a bit odd, so what? Plenty of people behave oddly in public, homelessness has nothing to do with it.

To answer your question, no, there is no social rule that people who don't have homes must stay outside on the sidewalk.
posted by Salamander at 6:39 PM on October 11, 2013 [25 favorites]

Fuck me and my uptight rules, but just buy the food and bring it to them outside next time rather than chaperoning an erratic homeless person through the supermarket, thanks.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:41 PM on October 11, 2013 [32 favorites]

Other people's reactions are their problem and no fault of yours. You treated her humanely, which is probably something she doesn't get very often. Good on you, 100%.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 6:41 PM on October 11, 2013 [14 favorites]

You did kind of break a social rule of engaging with a homeless person, and that's probably why you felt awkward, but that doesn't mean you did a bad thing.

"We ate and talked but I don't get the impression that any of it broke through the addicted/craving headspace she seemed to be in. It's like it only served to make a bunch of people uncomfortable. "

You filled up her belly. There was no way this act had the potential to break whatever addiction/craving headspace problem she has, but nor could that addiction be broken while being hungry.
posted by bleep at 6:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [15 favorites]

you treated her like a fellow human being rather than an Other. you even ate with her. good on you. no rules were broken--you just treated her with kindness and respect.
posted by wildflower at 6:47 PM on October 11, 2013 [14 favorites]

People are uncomfortable when someone is behaving erratically. Especially so when the person behaving erratically is a stranger. Even more so when they feel to a degree trapped--like people do when they have a task to finish (shopping, eating) and are trying to figure out if they can get it done before the erratic behavior erupts into crisis. So you probably did break with social convention, bringing someone who was behaving erratically into a place of business.

BUT the more important thing is: you acted with compassion and helped a person in need. So, hold onto that thought--it's a more generous and important thought and a more important aspect of what happened than is the fear that you upset people at the supermarket.

You're right. It's a complicated situation and it's not surprising you're having conflicting feelings in hindsight. But your initial impulse--to treat the woman like a human being and feed her and engage her as a human being--was the right impulse.

Some people are uncomfortable when we take my developmentally disabled aunt out to dinner--because a lot of people still believe that some disabilities should be hidden. Those people do not need to be accommodated by leaving my aunt at home when we're going out to eat.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:47 PM on October 11, 2013 [49 favorites]

I'm in the "you did something nice" camp. Usually, when I've offered to purchase food for homeless people asking me for money on the street, I've asked them what they would like, bought it myself, and gave it to them after leaving the store (sometimes they have a lot of possessions they may not want to leave unattended as well). It just feels a little easier for the offer to be "hey, can I get you something while I'm at it?" rather than "let me follow you around the store with my credit card." It avoids potential confrontation if there is a problem in the store too. On the other hand, getting to pick out her own food from the grocery store like a normal human being might be a nicer treat for her than having you pick it out, so I guess there's a balance.

Ultimately, you did a nice thing by giving a hungry person some food. That's not magically going to solve all her problems with addiction and/or mental illness and/or employment and/or family and/or housing, and I don't think you need to feel bad about that.
posted by zachlipton at 6:51 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I see nothing wrong with what you did. Thank you for making this an anonymous question.

By the way, I have no problem giving people money. They might spent it on food or on drugs. That it between them and God and who am I to say how they bring themselves a small comfort? (not a criticism - just something to think about moving forward. I never question anything a beggar says to me)
posted by Tanizaki at 7:00 PM on October 11, 2013 [21 favorites]

I would wonder if she was comfortable -- being 'chaperoned through the store,' so to speak. I suspect you would have felt more at ease with the whole adventure if she had been at ease. It's rare that people enjoy sticking out in a way that others dislike. Which is not to suggest ew poors but just that it makes me think of times I have been in public spaces when I would rather not have been. It seems a long shot that she thought "Oh hooray, I get to be chaperoned into the co-op market!" and far more likely that she was every bit as uncomfortable as the onlookers.

The whole thing is, to me, less dignified than giving her a few bills so she could get closer to buying drugs or booze. Nobody tells me, and presumably you, when we can or cannot allocate resources towards intoxicants. I feel like if you want to give, you should give. Possibly some of the weird factor here is that "chaperone" is exactly the right term for your role. You were under no obligation to give, but you gave and yet didn't actually give what you were asked for, and you ended up in a sort of peculiar temporary chaperone role instead of benefactor, which I think creates more of a power imbalance; it's 'I have more resources and I know better than you' instead of just 'I have more resources.'
posted by kmennie at 7:15 PM on October 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

I am so very proud of you. Thank you for treating her like a human being. It didn't sound like she was hassling or bothering anyone inside the store. So she's addicted to drugs and was high, and had trouble using the tongs. Thank you for giving the chance for her to try to get food like everyone else, instead of having her wait outside like a dirty animal.
posted by cairdeas at 7:16 PM on October 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

In HER place, I would have felt uncomfortable/been worried that this was all an elaborate prank: "let me watch you pick out your food and when it is time to pay I'll pretend YOU promised to treat". Ugh, there is not an insignificant subset of the population that thinks pranking the vulnerable is hilarious. Just a thought.
posted by saucysault at 7:18 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Throw me in with Admiral Haddock and zachlipton. I usually go in the store and grab whatever I can afford, keeping an eye out for things that are high in protein, keep for at least a day, don't require tools to open or prepare, and aren't too bulky or heavy. (This narrows the options significantly, but I usually compromise with one of the roasted chickens from the hot deli, a jar of nuts, and a bunch of delicious snack food.) I'll add to their thoughts the consideration that taking the beggar from their begging spot prevents them from collecting any funds while you're both inside shopping.

Which isn't to say that what you did was wrong—it was the kind thing to do, and you should hold onto that and dismiss any 'social rule' junk that springs to mind. Thank you, Anonymous, for being a good human.
posted by carsonb at 7:26 PM on October 11, 2013

I'll add that: my husband often does this when he goes to the grocery (buys food for the homeless in our neighborhood) but like Admiral Haddock, zachlipton, and carsonb, he buys the stuff, has it put in a separate bag, and brings it to the person, rather than bring the person into the store. I think this is generally the social convention associated with buying food for the homeless--as much as there is one.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:32 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for the feedback. Admiral Haddock's advice hit home and I can see where you're coming from. I don't know if the "chaperoney" weirdness came into play in this particular situation. I wasn't particularly wanting to give anyone a tour through the grocery store and have no illusions that she could or should have gone right in without my assistance if she wanted to. I asked off handedly because she approached me and she said yes so it was more spur of the moment. I'm aware the buying food and bringing it out is more standard. I feel conflicted about it in some ways, but it probably would have been the best thing here. Anyway, thanks - best answer, everyone.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:45 PM on October 11, 2013

She might have been worried about getting in trouble with the store if she served herself the chicken, something happened to prevent you from paying for it, and she did not have money for it herself.

Taking a guest to the store with you who ends up behaving erratically end up feeling a bit odd. There isn't anything actually wrong with it though.

It might be more comfortable for you and perhaps for her as well ask what she would like and bring it back out.

a jar of nuts

carsonb has some good ideas there, particularly with not needing tools to open cans. However, it's common for homeless people to have dental problems that could make eating nuts, or even many foods that we'd think of as softer like apples difficult or impossible.
posted by yohko at 7:47 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Re: the bit about her being uncomfortable, I was getting lots of vibes from her but her being uncomfortable or feeling shamed wasn't one. It became clear after a few minutes that she was really high or needing some fix, but she wasn't feeling out of her element in being in an actual grocery store I think.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:53 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

there's no rules--yet--about who can go into a supermarket. so she could've gone in either way. you did a good deed, no worries.

ps frankly i see ppl with $ in stores acting erratically all the time.
posted by dovesandstones at 8:13 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I definitely believe you that you made the people in the supermarket very uncomfortable, but that's because it was a situation that never happens, and it's good that you made it happen even once. If more people did this the discomfort would not be as extreme as it was. My point is that the discomfort came from the fact that this is something that no one has any experience with, not because it was inappropriate.

I think it was really, really great what you did, and so much more sensible that to follow the usual "rule" to just walk by, or give the person something to eat right there. No reason at all why you shouldn't have invited her in. To attempt to be kind is really wonderful even if, perhaps, you never broke through her "haze". But then maybe you did.

I think that even some of those very people who were totally uncomfortable in the situation would, upon reflecting on it, say that there was nothing wrong with what you did, and maybe that it was a great thing. It was just that there was no prior experience with the circumstances because it never happens and they dealt with it poorly. That's okay, and it's okay that you made people uncomfortable. There are some things in life that are more important that keeping things easy and maintaining the guise of social acceptability.
posted by Blitz at 11:29 PM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think the key thing that you did here was that you controlled the situation. I work at a restaurant in Downtown LA, and a woman recently brought in a man off the street and paid for a meal for him to go. But then she left him in the restaurant - bolted, frankly - and he wandered off and never got his lunch. After bothering other customers and harassing me (the hostess). Because he wasn't mentally all there. If the Good Samaritan in this situation had been able to spare fifteen minutes, things would have gone much better.

If you'd just given this woman money and let her run around the store, then yeah, that would've been rude. People who work in grocery stores are people, too. Chaperoning the situation was the right thing to do.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:33 PM on October 11, 2013

I think Blitz has it.

I would have been uncomfortable, because - who is that person and what are they doing? Is it OK for me to walk over there and get something from that same case, or am I going to be accosted? Is she going to start yelling things or having a fit of some sort and if so what do I do?

But I think you did the right thing. And fundamentally I think it's part of being a good person to try and overcome that discomfort and relate to people as human beings even if they're acting 'weird' (due to mental illness, or drugs, or old age, or whatever; as long as you aren't compromising your safety).
posted by Lady Li at 12:34 AM on October 12, 2013

You absolutely did the right thing. So what if the people in the store were uncomfortable for a few minutes? A hungry person got fed because of you, and that's a good thing. You also did it in a responsible way, making sure that she actually got food, even letting her choose, and sticking around to "chaperon" in case things got really out of hand.

The bottom line is that there really are very few "comfortable" ways to get engaged in circumstances like these. The woman's situation is a tough one, and frankly, the fact that we, as a society, have not come up with better ways to help is a shame on all of us. You deserve praise for pushing through and stepping up, and have inspired me to do the same.
posted by rpfields at 1:06 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think you did the entirely best thing because it sounds like you were trying to use her to have an epiphany of some sort and also if you were invested in her agency as a human being, you would have asked her where she wanted to eat instead of picking a place convenient to you and also making the choice that she HAD to either eat w you or get nothing. You basically didn't treat her as an adult struggling through poverty and addiction; you treated her like a fascinating problem in need of further examination.

That's probably why she was uncomfortable as well.
posted by spunweb at 7:45 AM on October 12, 2013

Oops I see from your update that she wasn't uncomfortable, just high. My bad!
posted by spunweb at 7:47 AM on October 12, 2013

I'm feeling long winded this morning so this might be more than you want, but I've had personal and professional experience with this and hope it helps...

I absolutely come from a perspective of compassion for addicts and mentally ill people, and am in favor of housing first initiatives to provide housing for the homeless and wet houses to accommodate people with addictions. I've had addicted/homeless friends and family members and worked with homeless populations and I understand your discomfort. Homeless can be erratic and dangerous. It's not just a myth. I've seen plenty of fist fights and frightening mental health episodes and seen plenty of nice requests for help turn to temper tantrums pretty fast.

People are right to be scared. My experiences with addicts/homeless have made me more in favor of extensive social services- through which people who see the homeless as equals could participate as friends/volunteers, but with some supervision because things can get crazy fast. If you learn how to work with people who are unstable you can get pretty good at defusing situations, but I have reduced my own personal contact with addicts and unsupported mentally ill people because it's dangerous.

I guess what I'm saying is, it's totally fine if you want to give food, but if you want to make a difference in the lives of addicts it might also help to learn about what resources are already in your area and volunteer/donate or do advocacy for more housing first/harm reduction based service programs for addicts and the homeless. It's not dehumanizing of people to assess safety considerations for interacting them or evaluating a request for help based on your decisions about whether you think help is really needed or what kind of help you are able/willing to give.

Because there is so much stigma against receiving help, and fear of punitive social services that force sobriety or performance standards that mentally ill/homeless can't meet- I sometimes let people know about homeless services in the area if they ask for help, that do not require sobriety. I have known friends who panhandled when they had somewhere to live, there's certain factions of subcultures that see it as hardcore to rip people off or steal, but I will say even among these it's usually people who are genuinely struggling with mental illness or school/employment stability and chose that subculture because they are afraid about being able to support themselves.

I have given plenty of handouts myself and I don't regret it, it's still an act of kindness, but it sounds like this was unsettling for you and you are considering how you could most be of genuine service- getting involved with knowing what resources are going on in your area and understanding the issues/spreading awareness in addition to donating time and money and voting in favor of support for homeless/addict issues are all things you can do to make a more meaningful and long lasting difference.

Wet houses and and some housing first initiatives essentially provide housing and often food and counseling without requiring sobriety- essentially what you were doing but every day. If there aren't any harm reduction based services in your area you can always right your representatives or organize to try to make it happen! Anyway-- those are just some ways you can make a more meaningful difference without making people in the grocery store feel unsafe or yourself feel unsafe. I have ushered strung out people through groceries before and it resulted in one person STEALING BEER which I felt responsible for and another one pretending to be a cat while crawling around on the floor and meowing. Leading to people being.. uncomfortable. Just some ideas for you. I think bringing the food out is ok too. And so is deciding to support addicts/homeless/mentally ill through other means, like structured volunteering, instead of directly offering food.
posted by xarnop at 9:47 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

How kind of you to offer to help someone in need, and to take her into the store so she could pick out some food. Awkward, maybe, but so many people let awkwardness keep them from acting on kind impulses. Unless she drooled on merchandise or something, she's just a customer, no big deal. Your kindness gave her nutrition, and she was treated like a person. Addiction and/or mental illness are strong, and compassion is still the right response, even though it doesn't cure everything. Sending you a hug, and one for her, as well.
posted by theora55 at 12:16 PM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Just want to give you one more piece of perspective. I have a relative who has been severely mentally since before I was born (schizophrenia). He has also been homeless (entirely by choice), been dirty (by choice), and he just acts kind of odd. I love him very, very, very much. When I was a young child my mom would take him out shopping and bring me. If he lives long enough it's quite likely that his care will fall to me, and I will certainly take him shopping if that happens. If someone acted like I was "violating a social norm" by taking him out shopping, if he wasn't bothering anyone, it would really bother me. When I was a child I definitely saw times when people were weirded out by him. My mom addressed those people and said, "Please excuse him, he's not well." Everyone was very understanding when she said that. He did have a period of time when my mom told him she would not take him shopping. (Over 20 years ago). He would sometimes have a conniption and yell racist things. My mom told him in no uncertain terms that she could not take him in public if he was going to yell racist things when he was with her. (I was there when it happened. She had to apologize to someone and tell them he was sick, and the person accepted it very gracefully, but my mom was furious when she got in the car). Anyway he got the message and he stopped doing that. If the mentally ill or addicted person is doing things like that, that legitimately upset and alarm people, then it's reasonable not to take them in the store and subject others to that. But if they're not bothering anyone, if they just so happen to be odd and maybe smelly, but not threatening or hassling people or acting like they're on the verge of freaking out? Completely unreasonable IMO for people to act like their presence is some kind of violation.
posted by cairdeas at 10:07 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

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