I was headed into the Jimmy John’s on Elm Street on Thursday for a quick sandwich. It had been a busy day, and I’d worked through lunch.
There was a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk nearby. He looked depressed, exhausted, like it had been a while since he’d had a shower or a meal.
As I walked past he looked up and said, almost sheepishly, “Hey, brother ... can you help me out? I’m trying to get something to eat.”
“I don’t have any cash, but I’ll buy you a sandwich,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Oh, thank you, brother,” the guy said. “I’ll take anything.”
I came out a few minutes later with a sandwich for the guy, a bag of chips and a bottle of water.
As I was handing it to him and he was thanking me, a guy walked past who was dressed basically as I was — dark, pressed suit; button-down collar; well-shined shoes. He looked at me and at this homeless man and stopped in front of us suddenly.
“You really shouldn’t do that,” he said to me.
“I really shouldn’t do what?” I said.
“You really shouldn’t buy them food,” the guy said, speaking to me as if the homeless man wasn’t there.
“If you give them money, they buy drugs,” he told me. “If you buy them food, then they spend the money they’d spend on food on drugs.”
“OK,” I said. “Thanks for the input. Have a nice day.”
I began to tell the homeless man good luck and to take care when the other guy broke in again.
“No, really,” he said, more insistently now. “You don’t know how they are. Giving them food isn’t your smartest option.”
Finally, I just ran out of patience.
“Your smartest option is to mind your own business and get out of my face,” I said to him.
Apparently surprised that one guy in a suit would speak to another like that over — you know, just this homeless guy — he looked spooked and quickly moved on.
The homeless guy thanked me and went on his way.
I went back to work, but the exchange bothered me for the rest of the day.
As a reporter, I’ve had occasion to spend a lot of time with homeless people. I’ve spent days following them around to write one-on-one profiles. I’ve interviewed them in groups around fires on freezing nights in homeless camps.
I’ve also written about panhandling ordinances, city-funded day centers for the homeless and county-funded shelters for homeless teens.
Some of the homeless people I’ve known were young runaways trying to escape homes where they were beaten or raped by family members.
Some were teens thrown out of their houses for having interracial relationships, getting pregnant or being gay. Some were mentally ill with little or no access to treatment; some were alcoholics or drug addicts.
Some truly were people who simply didn’t have the ability or the desire to live within society and preferred it on the streets, even with all its dangers and indignities.
Some of these people had no friends or family capable of taking them in when they found themselves homeless. Some couldn’t bring themselves to admit they needed help.
I’m sure knowing these people and having these experiences has informed my views on homelessness.
I’m also sure there are many people who could meet the same people, have the same experiences and come away with views that are nothing like mine.
When someone asks you for money or food on the street, it’s a complex and very personal thing. For some, religion and politics come into it. Some feel harassed or put out by the request itself.
I had a perfectly pleasant exchange with the man who asked if I could help him get some food.
The guy aggressively hectoring me for buying a hungry man a sandwich? He made me feel harassed.
I wouldn’t presume to lecture someone for not offering change or some food when approached on the street. It’s really none of my business.
Which is why I was a little taken aback, here in a Southern city where people take such pride in being friendly and well-mannered, to be chided for buying someone lunch.
How did this guy know I was not, myself, going to buy drugs if I hadn’t instead spent the money on a sandwich for a homeless man? That I wouldn’t buy cigarettes or booze with it, hire a prostitute or pay someone to break the knees of someone at the office who has been getting on my nerves?
He doesn’t, of course. And, I’d wager, he would have found it a little distasteful to inject himself into my affairs if he did.
So here’s what I propose — and I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
If you see someone engaging in an act of charity and for some reason it rubs you the wrong way? Extend to them the same courtesy you might if they were instead smacking their children in public, spitting on the sidewalk or talking loudly on their mobile phone while at the checkout counter.
Judge away, roll your eyes — but keep your mouth shut.
Joe Killian covers the city of Greensboro when he’s not riding his motorcycle, obsessively rearranging his bookshelves or throwing out random bits of arcane knowledge at trivia night.