Someone at Howie’s told me several months ago that she had taken up my practice of never saying no to anyone on the street who asks for money, but then, more recently, she said that a friend of hers who works at San Francisco General Hospital realized what she was doing and sternly instructed her to stop—the money often goes to substances that cause problems the friend ends up dealing with in her professional capacity.
When I walk over to the soup kitchen, I pass by 16th and Mission and have decided not to give money to anyone there, because the numbers are so large: If I gave one person a dollar, I’d rightly have to give 25 or 30 people dollars, and it just doesn’t seem like a good idea to initiate what could be a sort of feeding frenzy or become known as a person who carries around what might seem to some like wads of cash. I also think it’s probably not a good idea to give money to the soup kitchen’s guests should I happen to see them around the neighborhood, for fear of establishing special relationships that could cause hurt feelings or jealousy.
I also have been thinking about what my sangha member’s friend told her. I asked the executive director of the soup kitchen what he thinks, and he agreed that he prefers to give the needed item—food, a blanket, medication—rather than cash. Maybe there are vouchers for beds at shelters. Sometimes people on the street are trying to get enough money so they can sleep inside that night.
Recently, a woman asked me for money, and I announced that I’m no longer giving cash on the street and she burst into tears, saying she’s not a bad person, whereupon I gave her two dollars. I couldn’t bear to see her in tears on the sidewalk, right across the street from a building full of multi-million dollar condos. Maybe it was an elaborate performance so she could get money for early morning cocktails, but likely it was for food, just as she said.
I decided that, along with offering a moment of human connection, I’d rather accidentally give someone money that goes for alcohol or drugs than fail to give money that is needed for food or a room to sleep in. So be it. I could ask what is needed and help to procure the thing, but that would take something I’m less willing to give: time. I could carry around packets of nuts to give away—I still might end up doing that—but making my backpack any heavier would not be good for the problem I’m working on in physical therapy.
Service—volunteering somewhere—is also an excellent thing to give instead of cash. Speaking of which, here’s my better idea about how to volunteer at the soup kitchen: I talked to my contact about doing just two hours once a week: socializing and then serving second bowls of soup and bussing tables. He said they don’t call it “socializing”—they call it “hanging out in the yard”—but otherwise he thought that idea was good. He joked (I think), “We’ll teach you to break up fights.”
I said, “I was going to bring my piece,” which he thought was funny.
The reason this is a great idea, besides sparing my hands, is that instead of doing two more four-hour shifts paid for by my employer, I can do four two-hour shifts, which will take me into June, and then maybe I can effect a smooth segue into continuing with the same schedule after the official community service hours run out. Maybe my boss will be as nice as J.’s and let me take a long lunch once a week for this purpose, and if not, I’ll have to become a breakfast volunteer instead of a lunch volunteer.