My dad gives money to homeless people.
I had lunch with him Downtown this week to celebrate his birthday. An older, unshaven man came into the deli on Wisconsin Avenue where we were sitting and asked us for money.
"Just a couple dollars, anything you have. I'd like to get some chicken; get something to eat," he said, what seemed to be well-rehearsed words coming out of his mouth in a shy, tangled mess.
My dad gave him a $5 bill. "Thanks," he said. "You bet," said my dad.
Another man standing outside on the street saw this and hurried inside. He wanted some chicken, too. My dad didn't have another five on him, but he gave the man what singles he had left and told him to take care.
"You're a good guy," I told my dad.
"There but for the grace of God go I." He shrugged. "We never know what's going to happen to us in our lives."
Anyone who lives or works in an urban environment – and or even rural ones, for that matter – knows that moment. In my experience, it's an almost universally dreaded occurrence. You're walking down the street and you spot, several yards away, someone who is clearly in a bad way. The typical uniform is a tattered coat, no gloves, clothes that don't fit because they were bought for someone else. They are always moving somewhere but have no direction, because they don't really have any place to be or anything to do, except to be here, now, asking you for your help.
Do you give this stranger your time and money, or look the other way and keep walking?
I'm going to be honest. As a short-ish, out-of-shape female with comically weak upper arms, I keep walking. I don't know this person, I don't know what they want, I'm alone, I'm caught off-guard, I don't want to get myself into a situation I'll regret. If I stopped to think, I would admit that no, I don't really consider the situation a dangerous one. But I don' t have time to stop and think – I have a warm office to get back to, a warm car to drive, a home. And so I quicken my step and walk past.
And afterward, I really hate myself for it.
I have all these philosophies about life and love – compassion, I truly believe, is what makes us human. But in those moments, confusion and fear keep me from helping someone who might need it, simply because they're a stranger.
I've met a lot of people who maintain that none of these folks need it. They call them bums, alcoholics, panhandlers, ne'er-do-wells, troublemakers, con artists and pests. "You're only buying them their next drink," they say. "There's a shelter two blocks away if they really need help."
Maybe that's true. Maybe it isn't. I don't think my dad really cares either way. Any road that ends with someone standing on a street asking strangers for money is a rough one. Yeah, maybe they've got problems. Maybe they "refuse to help themselves" (another accusation I've heard leveled at the homeless).
Well, don't I have problems? Haven't I been accused of refusing to help myself in certain situations? And where would I be if I had never had anyone to help me out?
Today, on the coldest day of the year, when there are hundreds of people out there who could use a kind smile and a $5 bill, I am ashamed of myself. I wish I wasn't so afraid. I wish I had the courage to love people the way my father does.
Because he's right. We never know what's going to happen to us in life.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.