One Afternoon with a Homeless Guy
My charity takes a tumble.
Posted Jan 19, 2018
He came into the small café where I was eating my lunch. He looked to be in his late 60s or early 70s, wearing shabby clothes and shoes with holes. He shambled in on an aluminum cane, moving carefully and painfully, collapsing into the first booth near the door and gasping for breath. In a croaking voice he asked the waitress for a glass of water and coughed heavily until she brought it to him. Sitting nearby, I heard his story as he talked to the waitress.
He was trying to get to his doctor’s office across town, to get to an appointment for this stroke therapy. The stroke had left him with partial paralysis, speech problems, and unable to work. He didn’t have a car and didn’t know how to get to his medical appointment. He said he only had a little bit of money and couldn’t afford a cab and his meal. He ordered a bowl of soup. The waitress listened to his story about wanting to visit his daughter in a town several hours away and not having the bus fare to get to her. His cough and his slurred speech made it hard to understand him.
As he ate his soup, the waitress called her friend, a local cab driver, and told him to come over and get this man and she would cover the fare. I walked over and slipped her a $20 bill to give to him, saying don’t tell him it came from me. He gave her a few crumpled bills to pay for his soup, which she refused. The cab arrived a few minutes later and the driver and the waitress helped him out of the restaurant and into the cab, moving slowly to accommodate his limping walk, his trouble using his cane, and his overall poor health.
She came back inside and I told her I’m sure he was grateful for all her help. She said, “There are always people who will be worse off than me, so if I can do my part to make their way easier in the world, I’m glad to do it.” I agreed with her and gave her the cash for my lunch. She refused to take it and thanked me for helping the man. I left the money with her anyway and left the cafe.
Side note: Having been a cop for 15 years, I have seen and dealt with more than my fair share of homeless people. Some of them were in serious distress, especially the women with their children and the children living in peril alone. I have talked to many homeless adults with drug and alcohol problems, untreated or wrongly-treated mental health problems (including their desires to self-medicate), and with heartbreaking issues with hygiene, hunger, and the lack of humanity by the people who passed them by (including some not-so-empathic other cops).
I have heard some of them tell me their Tales of Woe and known them to be lies. “I’m a Vietnam vet” said the 35-year-old homeless "soldier" to me. When I reminded him he was 8 during those war years, he said, “I meant the Iraq War.” He didn't know the name and number of his unit. I have seen seemingly able-bodied homeless men turn down offers of a meal and some cash in exchange for a few hours of yard work, saying, “Can I just have the money instead?”
I have seen homeless men and women standing on the center island of an intersection, rattling their paper cops, and holding their cardboard signs looking cold and miserable. Then I have seen these same people pack up at the end of their “work day,” pull out their iPhones, climb into their nice and nearly new cars parked around the corner, and drive to their not-very-low-incomes homes apartments. As such, I believe I have the street-side experience to know scammers from people in real and deep need.
I left the café and went back to my client’s office to teach another training class for the afternoon. I felt good about giving the older man the money, hoping that he would be okay. I taught my last class of the day and left the building, which was across the parking lot from a small strip mall. As I crossed the lot and headed toward my car, imagine my surprise to see the same elderly man, laughing, talking, and even dancing around a bit, with some of his pals, smoking a cigarette, and holding a beer. No cane! No slurred speech! Full mobility and movement from his stroke! No hacking cough! It was a miracle! He had been healed!
No. I got scammed, and so did the waitress, simple as that. Despite my years of dealing with that population, I fell for it and so did she. Some of you might say, “I would’ve went over there and confronted that guy; given him a piece of my mind! Remember me? I was the one that gave you money and fell for your sob story!” Others of you might have went back to the nearby café and told the waitress what you just saw. I did neither, seeing no point in talking to him and no point in ruining the day of the nice lady at the café.
What’s the lesson in all this? Give to reputable government-run, grant-funded, and faith-based charities that truly help the homeless. Suppress your urge to give your money to the guy sitting on the sidewalk with bloody bandages wrapped around his legs (it’s actually ketchup). Give money straight to women in distress and children in peril. Give a bag of dry dog food to the homeless guy dragging his dog through the streets using his belt as a leash. Be suspicious about giving your money to a seemingly able-bodied homeless male, who might just take what you give him to buy a beer and a few loose cigarettes out of the jar at the liquor store.
I’m mad at myself for getting scammed. I’m grateful for people like the waitress, who did what she thought was right, and I’m disappointed that the guy who beat us for soup, a cab ride, and twenty bucks had to stoop to that level.
Dr. Steve Albrecht is a keynote speaker, author, podcaster, and trainer. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessments, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht