I was sitting at Waffle House yesterday afternoon because coffee. As I was caffeinating myself, a homeless woman began to speak behind me. I thought she was randomly ranting about her life and how it was crazy that homeless people cannot get food stamps, and I cringed and pretended I didn’t hear. Which actually turned out ok because she wasn’t talking to me at all, but on a phone lent to her by the waitress. On a second call to a Sister Janet, she left a lengthy voice mail. I’m at Waffle House, said the woman. I need to get to the Howard Johnson for the night. I have half the money. I need someone to pick me up and drive me there and use their ID to get me a room. I just need one night. She carefully repeated the information several times. I’m here. This is what I need. For just one night.
From the corner of my eye, I could see her, sitting next to a wheel chair in a too big camo jacket on a day people were being warned to stay inside because of the heat. I could see an aura of pain around her, or maybe it was sweat. She was articulate. She probably had a job once, a family. Now she had Sister Janet and the kind Waffle House waitress. And me! How lucky for her I stopped to get coffee and actually had a small amount of cash on me.
I went over to her table and set a single bill on the table. “Excuse me ma’am,” I said. “I’d like to help you get your hotel.”
She said nothing.
“She can’t see, “said the waitress. I was startled. I had not realized she was blind as she sat rubbing her eyes.
“I’m just going to leave this here for you,” I say.
“Just tell me what it is,” said the woman.
“It’s a Ten.” I say. I had another five in my bag somewhere. Why hadn’t I pulled it out? “I’d like for you to get your hotel room tonight.”
For a long moment, she said nothing, then “Thank you.”
That’s it. Just a firm, emotionless thank you. No joy, no gratitude, no resentment. Nothing at all. Just the expected acknowledgement of my paltry gift.
I think she was tired. Tapped out. Tapped out of hope, tapped out of optimism, tapped out of momentum. That last one-sided conversation took all the strength she had. Now she was waiting. For Sister Janet. Or whatever happened to her next.
I was surprised. Caught off guard, even. I had expected effusive levels of gratitude. I had expected multiple “thank yous” and “bless yous” and probably even a “you are a good Christian,” which I get in this type of situation a lot. It’s really awkward. Is this really the time to explain to someone that you are, in fact, not a Christian, and that people who are not Christians are also capable of acts of kindness? Way to lecture the homeless person and make it all about you.
“Try to stay cool,” I told the woman, thinking about how the hotel would get her out of the Heat Advisory.
“I’ll try to stay alive,” she said, letting me know air conditioning might not be her first priority. “I’ll try to stay alive.”
Well. That was a downer. This was supposed to make me feel good about myself. But I felt just as shitty as before I paid my guilt tax. My ten dollars did not cure her homelessness. I could have given her a hundred and that wouldn’t have gotten her off the streets or the permanent address you need to get an ID so you can get a hotel room or food stamps or a voter’s registration. I could justify the inadequacy of my gift by claiming it was better than nothing. But isn’t it her job to tell me that, to make me feel better about sleeping in my own bed? Is that not the least she could do after I had done the very very least that I could do? But she refused to play. Either she would get the hotel or she wouldn’t. Either she’d survive the night or she wouldn’t. Anything I had to offer was too little, too late, and she did not feel obligated to make me feel ok about that. Had I given her money because I wanted to help or because I hoped it would make that icky feeling in the pit of my stomach go away? Both probably, but I’m not sure I got either.
Feeling good about helping is not the same thing as actually helping. I talked to my brother about this when he got back from a short Mission trip to Haiti where he had helped a few native men build a device for collecting fresh water. They appreciated his help, he said, and while it was a humbling, life-changing experience for him, he had spent money to get there to experience it that could have gone to raw materials. It’s not as if, he said, they have a shortage of labor. He would have helped more by staying home and sending cash.
Orphan tourism, which you can read about here, is so bad some places that children who have parents drop out of school to “work” as orphans to support the tourist industry. But go right ahead and feel good about those band aids you took over in your suitcase. Take some of those selfies with brown children, too. Put them on Instagram. Tell people at cocktail parties how much you helped. Open your eyes to the horrors of the world and then pay what you have to pay so you can still sleep at night.
Not much of a traveler? Bored with handing cash to winos? You can participate in the White Savior Industrial Complex from home. May I present Feeding Children Everywhere, a charity out of Orlando. You give them money, and they throw you a party. They bring everything you need for you and your friends to package single-serving meals of dried beans and rice for the low low price of $.25 per meal. They’ll even bring music! Everyone loves music! It’s fun and it only takes a couple of hours. There isn’t much on their website that tells you where uncooked single serving meals actually go. To hungry children. Obviously. The meals are really just a by-product of the experience, after all. And they do not pretend otherwise. So if you can get past the image of a hungry child staring forlornly at a baggie of food she can’t actually eat until someone with a pot and a fire cooks it for her, you might just have a really great day. You should go out for drinks afterwards. You deserve it!
I don’t really have a better answer for addressing other people’s suffering. I don’t even know if giving a pan-handler spare change at a stop light makes the problem better or worse. I just know that we all need to take a step back and make sure our actions match our motivations. And we need to make sure our motivation is not merely momentary relief from guilt. Ending homelessness and hunger are not easily solvable problems. Let’s not pretend our spare change makes these problems go away.
As for the homeless woman, I hope she got her hotel room. And I hope I find another way to get rid of that nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach that she refused to assuage. Maybe I need to stay angry, stay hungry. She’s going to. If she survives.