In Minneapolis, where I live, highway off-ramps and busy intersections are often populated with homeless people. Many hold the familiar cardboard signs, with messages scrawled in magic marker, asking for help of some kind. For years, I passed these people by without much thought. I suppose I thought that they might make better use of their time by seeking employment. And I'm not sure exactly how I came to shift my thinking, but I've been more inclined to giving something when I can. I suppose that handling questions from my two children has something to do with my change. (It's a challenging topic to cover with a six year old and a four year old.)
In the summer months, I've taken to carrying a case of bottled water. When I'm approaching someone with a sign, I typically roll down my window and hold a bottle out as I get near so that they have a chance to move towards the curb before I stop. (I like to keep my stop as short as possible as there's often traffic behind me.) To date, no one has ever declined my offer of water and virtually all have offered thanks.
Now that the weather is getting cold in Minnesota, the season for handing out water is ended, since dropping temperatures will turn my case of water to chunks of ice. I've been thinking about something else that I might be able to hand out, but in the meantime, I've been handing over a couple of bucks when I can.
Today, near downtown Minneapolis, I saw a man holding a sign stating: "Homeless. I will not steal, so I beg you for your help." (I paraphrase, as I can't remember the exact wording.) As I approached him at the stoplight, I pulled two dollars from my wallet and handed it to him. He thanked me profusely. As we both waited for the light to turn green, I noticed that he wasn't wearing gloves. I asked him if he had a pair that he could wear. He said no, that he was going to have to find a pair some time. I'd set my gloves on the passenger seat next to me as I drove. And I quickly decided to give him my gloves. He seemed surprised and tried to turn them down. "You don't have to give me your gloves." I told him that I wanted him to have them. And then he said: "I'm sorry."
I reflexively told him that he had nothing to be sorry for. And that gloves were the least that I could do for him. He then said: "Sometimes we just have to ask for too much." I told him again that I was glad to help as I could. I wished him luck. Then the light turned green. He thanked me again and I drove away.
As I drove home, I thought a bit about a winter substitute for water. As a devoted thrift store shopper, I purchase much of my winter clothing second hand. I guess I'll be shopping for sturdy gloves, mittens, hats and warm socks to keep within reach as I drive from now on.
I've been thinking about him for the last couple of hours. I'm ashamed that in the United States of America, there are people standing on the side of the road, literally begging for help. And I'm moved by the gratitude of that man.