heartless, or . . . ?

homeless-guy-sign-paypal-donation2I was being compulsive. Again. I’ve told you I’m a clean freak, right? Well, I am, and today it was about my car. I’d just gotten it washed after my trip to San Francisco (more on that later), and now, next door at Chevron, I was wiping dirt off of the engine under the hood.*

As I was working, I suddenly became aware of a car right behind me.

“Excuse me. Miss?”

I turned around to see a large Hispanic man leaning out of an old tan Buick. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt despite the warm weather and a thick black mustache over pale lips. A dark-haired woman sat in the passenger seat beside him.

“I’m sorry to trouble you, but my wife and I are from San Jose. We got a call late last night telling us that my father was ill. He died about 45 minutes ago. We left in a rush without any of our belongings, and now we just need a little money for gas to get home.”

I hesitated; this was a scam if ever I’d heard one. The man looked as upset about his “father’s death” as a man reading the morning paper over coffee, and yet . . .

My voice came unwillingly. “Why should I believe your story?”

homeless-cardboard-sign1The man blinked as though he hadn’t expected the question. “Because I’m telling it to you.” And then he added, “If you’ll help us and give me your bank information, I’ll pay you back as soon as we get home.”

That was about the least convincing thing he could have said. Any shred of sympathy I might have had suddenly dissipated. What did this guy think I was—an idiot?

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any cash.”

“But, Miss . . .”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, not used to the hardness of my own voice, “but I can’t help you. You’re going to have to ask someone else.” And I turned around and finished wiping off my engine and closed the hood. As I drove away, I saw the man’s wife approaching another driver. I shook my head.

The incident got me to thinking, though. Whether it’s a scammer or a homeless person with a sign, why do such encounters leave me feeling so unsettled? Why do I feel guilty if I choose not to give, even though I myself don’t have any money and know I did the right thing?

And, also . . . What pushes people to lie, beg, cheat, and steal? Is it always desperation (which is about the only thing that could push me to do such a thing), or is it . . . sometimes . . . something else?

*It drives me crazy not to be able to wash my car myself, but, alas, a hose and large slab of cement are hard to come by in an apartment complex.

Images: Google


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62 thoughts

  1. Interesting – I sent this to many of my good friends today – this is legit (you know me) and money has been coming in to help this young lady! So, funny you would write about what I am doing today…
    I have a good friend stuck in Sedona, AZ – trying to get some money together to help her out –
    Her name is Natisha Smith and she is one of my old students –
    I wondered if you could send her $20 –
    No she is not a drunk or anything – she is a good kid in a tough spot…

    Hoss Lors

    • Haha. Of course I know you, Hoss! I’ll check out the link. If I know it’s for a good cause, it’s a completely different case than if I’m worried I’m being scammed.

    • I’m with you. I’ve done a little mission work in San Francisco. Some homeless people have heart-wrenching stories—used to own homes and have jobs and a family, etc. like you and me—and then one thing after another went wrong… Those are the kind of people I’d want to help get back on their feet. The bums by choice and the ones who are just going to spend my money on drugs and alcohol, though… That’s another thing.

  2. Unfortunately sometimes we don’t know who is telling the truth, but I’d have to say this was a scam. Like you said “bank info?” Really?!? I give to charities that I know contribute to causes, Relay For Life, March of Dimes, St. Judes, the list goes on and on. But rarely have I given money to someone asking for money. If they are asking for money for food I buy them a cheeseburger or something, if they decline that is on them—sure I feel bad, but I tried.

    I hope I’m not cynical, but at times, like if the person declines, more than likely it was a scam. And what makes me feel bad isn’t that I didn’t give it usually because the first thing I assume is that they are lazy slackers how don’t want to work. I know that is bad of me but I think it is human nature to be skeptical, maybe part of our fight or flight response.

    • I think it’s part of human nature to grow cynical. Life and experience teach us to be that way.

      Some friends of mine on facebook commented that there was a man in Sacramento who would dress up in a suit and tie and go from gas station to gas station claiming to have left his wallet at home. He would pull in between $200-$300 a day doing that… Like you said, the only way I’d “give” in situation like that is to actually fill up a person’s tank for them or to go buy them a cheeseburger. Giving them free money to throw away on other purposes just isn’t right… So you’re not alone!

  3. I once had a guy start in while I was at a stop sign and before he got through the introduction, I told him I’m not interested in his hard-luck story.
    My uncle was a bum, by choice; and that’s enough to dry my sympathy well. My dad once asked him what they thought of people who give them money, and my uncle’s response was “they’re suckers.”
    On the other hand, cheers and kudos for wiping the engine down… as if I needed any more reasons to like you. As an avid car guy who basically spoils his car inasmuch as feasible, I can readily relate to this activity.

    • Haha. Yeah, what I really need is a hose so I can *really* clean out my engine. I’ll do it one of these days… I’m pretty meticulous. It’s why I’ve had my car for more than 13 years and plan to have it in three more, when I will have owned it for half my life! Lol.

      A bum by choice, eh? I believe it. I know there *are* some people out there who really do need help getting back on their feet, but, to me, begging day after day is not the way to get there. There are soup kitchens and job organizations for that. The people I *really* feel for are those in foreign countries who’ve been disabled and have nowhere to turn. *Those* are the people I *really* want to help.

  4. If it were not for the scammers, we could all be as compassionate as possible. Instead, we’re naturally cynical and compassion is equivalent to stupidity.

  5. I know what you mean. There’s a guy in a nearby town who has walked up to me a couple of times and said, “I have a flat tire. Could you give me a few dollars so I can get a can of Fix a Flat?” The first time, I gave him money. The second time (a year later) I didn’t. I’ve made up my mind that NEXT time he approaches me, I’m going to say, “You’ve had that flat tire for a long time, haven’t you?”

    • Lol. I’ve heard of similar things happening in big cities like Washington, D.C.—accidentally approaching the same person twice, even if a single day! A blogger friend of mine in India was traveling by train with his father. Both encountered a little boy at separate times who told them each a completely different hard-luck story, and both gave him money. It was only later when they talked about it that they realized they’d been scammed!

    • All of the big cities are plagued by the homeless. San Francisco is a beautiful city but has one of the highest homeless populations in the States, I believe. It truly is sad, and where does one start in “helping”? Some of the change has to come from the individuals themselves, and not all of them are stable enough psychologically to be able to make some of those changes.

      Do you work with the homeless on a daily basis?

  6. You’ve raised some good questions Jessica and I think it’s a scenario that most of us are facedwings with one time or another, or regularly in my case. Where possible, I feel it’s important for someone to earn their money. I ask them to guard my car, pack my grocery bags into the car, etc – but not sure how that would work in the States!

    I think you may have responded to him differently if he had offered to wash your car for you or shine your mags or something to warrant a donation! But to use the ‘my father just died’ thing….I’d say you were 100% right in smelling a rat!

    Maybe suggest something like, I’m a journalist and I’d like to take an hour out of your time for your story, (with a photo of course and identification) since you are coincidently doing a write up on Losing loved ones (!) and you will pay them your donation equivalent. I’m pretty sure that will sound like a whole lot of work if they are the scamming type! Which brings me to my point, why work when you can get a hand out?

    There are of course the genuine folk and I think that most of us can tell the difference.

    • That’s an interesting thought! “I’m doing a write-up…” Definitely wouldn’t have thought of that on the spot. I’ll bet you’re right, though—they wouldn’t have gone for it. When I was writing this post I thought of some of my readers like you who live in countries like Africa or India where you must certainly be bombarded by requests like this on a daily basis when you go into the city. I’m sure a lot of those people really *are* hard up and won’t just spend your money on drugs or alcohol. But I think that’s a good system you’ve got—to ask them to do a small job for you in exchange for the hand out. That makes a good point…

      • You’re absolutely right, here we are dealing with extreme poverty and my suggestion of a ‘write up’ would certainly not apply here! I am bombarded with requests every time I drive into Beira. They are all desperate. But, I stick to my guns and ask them to earn it where and when possible. This makes it ‘work’ for them and not ‘begging’, which I believe they take pride in. Obviously there are also times when I immediately dig into my wallet for a couple coins without much thought!

        Funny, while reading your post, I never thought of people begging in order to feed their alcohol or drug addiction, but now thinking about it, I imagine it may be a big problem over there. I think that if I lived your side after seeing what I do here, I’d be a real hard ars! Zero tolerance!

      • Haha! Yes, I’m certain there is a BIG difference in the majority of the begging population between the States and Africa. Here it seems you can almost always be assured it is a scam… There, I can see the pride they might gain from being able to “earn” their money rather than begging for it… Zero tolerance would be a good thing over here! Perhaps fewer people would be bums by choice!

  7. I’m curious: what do you think the “something else” is? I’ve had this same experience (I’ve even been approached in the same way and with the same story as you describe here), and it always leaves me feeling unsettled, especially after I’ve read about how some of street scam artists work. It’s creepy. And maybe that’s what you’re thinking. Be safe.

    • Thanks, Ted. Yeah, I guess I want to have faith that *some* of these people really do need help, that not all are scammers. Those are the ones I’d place in the “desperate” category. The others, the “something elsers,” are those without strong morals who would call me a “sucker” after I gave them a handout. I don’t want to be a sucker…

  8. Jessica, that sentence: “I was wiping dirt off of the engine under the hood.*” CRACKED me up! Your definition of a ‘clean freak’ might need further modification. HAH! Thank you for starting my morning and day off with a big chuckle!

    Not that I have the perfect answer/suggestion for your ‘grinding’ conscience, but two personal experiences have taught me the depth of an old parable:
    “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you’ve fed him for life.” Or in these times inside the supposed richest country in the world, you’ve given the begger the means to start becoming self-sufficient, hence being a productive part of society rather than a burden (higher taxes).

    My two experiences? One, while walking from the parking lot to a nice restaurant in north Dallas (with my kids & family), a gentleman not so poorly dressed along with his apparent wife explained a very similar story as your Hispanic man asking for help/money. I immediately gave him $5 which is about all I had at the moment. About a week later me & my Mom returned to that exact same restaurant and this same man approached me again with the exact same story. When I angrily called him on his audacity, he immediately left the parking lot as if the police were about to arrive! Lesson one.

    Lesson two: while giving my sister a ride to court downtown Dallas (she’s a lifetime addict who has had to live literally under interstate bridges because of her addiction) a “homeless man” walked up to my SUV. I roll down my window about 3 inches…”Yes?” He quickly explains his unbelievable misfortunes. I cut him off about 10 seconds later, and firmly say in few words NO. Then my sister confesses a scam she would always pull that she learned from other fellow homeless persons. She’d walk around (purposely) with an empty gas can saying she needed gas to desperately get somewhere ASAP. She proudly stated it worked almost every time and on some days she could walk away with $20 – $50 dollars and go get her drugs and or beer she was craving.

    Scammers LOVE to play on good people’s compassion. From now on I have conscience-free standard answer for all of them: “No, but I will be happy to buy you a newspaper to find an easy $8 – $10/hr job or a nearby carwash to prep or dry washed vehicles?” Ninety percent of the time they’ll just silently walk off.

    Nothing wrong at all with saying no Jessica. ;)

    • Yes, stories like that are all too common. Unfortunately, I think you’re right that *most* homeless persons fall into exactly the category you described. (I’m sorry to hear about your sister, by the way.) I think that that will end up being my lifetime approach as well. “I’m happy to help you get to a better place for life, but giving you a ‘one-day fix’—whether with food or cash or gas—is not something I’m interested in doing.”

      And I’m not sure why you laughed so hard at my story of being a clean freak? My car is only one small area of my life where this is exhibited. I vacuum my apartment every day. (freak!)

      • *Laughing uncontrollably*…Jessica, I hope we are kidding and messing with each other. I am in no way serious about poking fun at your wonderful clean-habits! Actually, I appreciate neat-freaks greatly because they ‘challenge’ me….on so many levels. ;-)

      • Of course we’re kidding with one another! I just wasn’t sure what you meant. ;) It is good the world is filled with different personalities. Our differences are what make the world interesting, and what keep it going round and round…

  9. most of us tell ourselves the story that we’re not going to interact with that kind of stranger. we’re not going to give a person like that money. we don’t leave our homes every day thinking, i wish I could find someone like this I could give a dollar to. and it’s not a useful way to help someone.

    that person has to really change our view of things in order for us to part with money.

    i wonder, if he had asked you to give him a dollar in exchange for four quarters, would you have done the transaction? it’s a pretty unique approach. and if he then said, “excuse me, do you have a quarter?” … would that be ingenious enough to reward him?

    – tony

    • hmm. tony…

      no, in my mind, that would not have been an ingenious enough approach, though it would have been better than making up a story about a dead father. (why would they have been leaving so quickly after his father died? why couldn’t a family member have helped them out? who leaves home, even in a rush, without their cell phone or wallet?)

      if the man had been honest with me, if he could have shown me that his car was on empty and told me he was hard up, if i had helped fill their tank myself… as you said, anything else is not just not useful… xo jess

  10. good question your last paragraph. esp in Singapore where there’s almost no hobos and drugs is an offence punishable by death sentence, i do wonder what pushes these people to beg, lie and cheat here.

    • I’d really like to experience Singapore, to see what it’s like. I know you’re not allowed to chew gum there, either! *Do* you ever see scammers there?

      • You are allowed to chew gums but no gum sellers here, lol… As for scammers few and far between but yes we do have them.

  11. I as once approached by a person asking for money. I asked him if he was just begging or he wanted to earn it! I asked him to wash my dad’s car and my bike and then gave him some extra money.
    In other cases I have a hard time in deciding whether I should believe the person or not, most of the times I do not. If it’s an old lady then I help her right away with whatever I can.

    • An old lady? Of course! Although… Depending on where you are there may be some swindling old ladies, too. Haha. But I like the idea of asking someone to work for the money you give them. It may be something I’ll have to incorporate the next time I find myself in a situation like this.

      Thanks for your comment. :)

  12. My boyfriend takes the train to work every day and sometimes he gives money to people. Young people who say they don’t have enough to buy a ticket home, homeless people asking for money to buy food. “Aren’t you worried they are lying to you?” I once asked. “No,” he replied. “If I truly helped someone out, all the better. If they lied, then I’m not the one with the biggest problem.” I think it’s naive and admirable at the same time.

    • I read a story not too long ago about a guy who got mugged on the subway in New York. A kid with a knife came up to him and asked him for his wallet. After giving the kid his wallet, the guy called out to the kid, “Hey, you probably need this, too,” and he gave him his coat. The kid looked confused. The guy then offered to buy him dinner, which is where he’d been headed. The two ended up in a diner together where they talked about a lot of things. When the bill came, the guy said, “Well, kid, actually it looks like *you’re* buying dinner…” In the end the kid gave the guy his wallet back and was changed, probably for life.

      Your boyfriend’s right—if he’s being lied to, he’s not the one with the biggest problem. But I still don’t want to give easy handouts for drug and alcohol addictions! ;)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. I love this topic and love your transparency. I think these usually are scams.
    I still like it when people approach me, though. When someone asks for money, I always ask them their name, and that often catches them by surprise. They are almost never asked. Then I start asking more about them, about their lives, and sometimes I might ask if I can pray for them. (That’s strange for me, because I rarely offer that to people I actually know.) After all that, they’ve typically forgotten about money.

    • Haha, Lucas. That’s a good approach. I would feel awkward asking someone if I could pray with them, but asking them for more details about their life would be interesting. In this case, I wonder if this guy would have been able to keep his facts straight. I actually thought about asking him to show me his drivers’ license so he could at least prove he was from San Jose.

  14. A very quick reply to why you feel guilt and unsettlement during and after these encounters.
    Mirror neurons + emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to “feel” what others feel (or pretend they do like the guy from San Jose). All people can do it yet some can significantly more than others. As with everything in life, this is as much of a gift as of a curse. (Especially in personal relations!)
    Resilience is the key to manipulate emotional intelligence to your advantage. Strength, elasticity, emotional recovery time at heart and mind. But first of all you have to be aware of this great gift.
    Google this “athene’s theory of everything.” It’s got extensive info on mirror neurons and emotional intelligence.

    • Hmm. Okay, I’ll look it up. That concept sounds very interesting. I really thought I felt bad because I wanted to believe there was a chance this guy was telling the truth—that I was possibly turning down an opportunity to truly help someone. I also don’t like to believe my fellow man capable of such deceit. But, clearly, to deny the “dark side” of humanity would be madness.

  15. I’ve read every comment above.

    are scammers God’s Children too?

    Your story about the kid in the NY subway was the best comment made.

    • Interesting, Bob. I would think it depends on who your god is, but if they are “God’s children,” the good thing is that they’re not mine, so it’s not my responsibility to redeem them, nor is it my responsibility to feed their immoral activities. This would be true also of my own adult children.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bob! In that circumstance, I too believe that man did the right thing… But a mugging is somewhat different than a scamming… I definitely feel it would be good to help the scammer in any way I could, but not by engaging in and/or supporting their game.

      • Thank you Jessica. In human terms your and Carl’s view is fine. The Bible has a few things to say on the matter, though, and if it is the divinely inspired word of God (for us to believe or not as we choose) and we believe in the same God then perhaps a rethink may be in order?

        “Bless those who curse you; do good to those who would spitefully use you. If a man asks your shirt, give to him your cloak also, do unto others, as you do unto the least of them so ye do unto me,” etc. etc.?

        Were there no charlatans or cheats in Biblical times? Did Jesus say to judge someone before you decide what they need or to give to them? or is that strictly a human thing?

        Whose will do we choose to follow?

        And yes in the past I have been guilty of exactly the same thoughts as in comments above. I am aware of the hypocrisy… but I am trying to listen more these days to what the Big Guy is telling me – His message never changes yet it seems so very hard for us to hear it. :-) ♥

      • To question someone’s motives is not to judge. To find out what their *true* needs are, so that you can *really* help them (if they are willing), is better than to be a doormat. If the money I give someone is simply a means for their next “high,” have really I helped them?

        Jesus would have gone the extra mile to find out what the bum on the street’s true needs were. *That* is what I believe we are called to do.

      • Good Answer! :-) I think Jesus would have done that also – even though He did say ‘the poor you will have with you always’ and did not go out of his way to help all the poor in the world – or even all the ones along His path. He mostly helped those who would help themselves also. (Through their Faith)

        Even so, something is still ‘niggling’ me if i was in that situation… the vestiges of the selfish thought… does he in my opinion ‘deserve’ my help/money? i therefore suspect i’m still not quite where i need to be, in Jesus.

        So did you? ( do what He would have in that situation?) Or did you do what you thought ‘best’?

        Just curious ;-)

  16. strong preference to give money to someone i am absolutely sure needs it -eg via Medecins sans Frontiers, or to something that benefits humanity as a whole – eg wikipedia.
    but that being said money sometimes goes, in poor places, to old ladies or gents who aren’t asking for it but who clearly need it.

  17. When he asked for your account information…if you had given it to him, he would have helped himself to what you had in there! We can be wise, and not be heartless. I am glad that you were okay! You cannot be too careful these days! Blessings and hugs!

    • Thank you, Wendell! Yes, I fully agree. We can help without becoming a doormat. In fact, the best way to help is by not being foolish. You are so kind. Thanks for reading. Blessings to you, too!

  18. Hi Jessica. I liked this post a lot. I ran a felony employment program for about year and some other work with the homeless helping then to find jobs… My all-time favorite line came from an old guy who said, “I’m an out of work comedian, and that’s not funny!” People are people. May I reblog this one to dp@large?

    • Hi there! Please forgive my delayed response!! I’m so glad you liked this post. It’s something that a lot of people can relate to, apparently. I would be honored if you chose to reblog it. That would make my day… And that quote from the out of work comedian is priceless! Love it! Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

  19. I am little late to this comment party, but here is my two cents. I travel a lot to college towns and college campuses and I am approached all the time for “a few bucks to help with food.” While I don’t always do this, I have been shocked by how many times I have been rejected when I offer not to give them cash, but take them to a place and pay for their meal. It floors me that a person who is trying to get enough money for food will turn down a free meal. I have heard all sorts of excuses, but have only had three takers in 10 years of trying! I am extremely fortunate that I am where I am, so I try and share with others when I can. But I also try to not be exploited and used as an expendable resource for someone who does not want to help themselves. Maybe I am callus and cold, or maybe I just don’t like being used.

    Time to get off my soapbox now! This was a very well written post Jessica! Keep the writing coming, you have a gift!

    • Thank you so much! And it’s never too late to comment on a post, at least not in my book. I’d love to keep as many of my posts “live” for as long as I can…

      I hear you loud and clear. That people asking for money for food would turn down a free meal just doesn’t add up… I don’t want to be used, either. I want to help, if possible, but sometimes what people *really* need is more than money or food, and that’s not something I can help them with unless they themselves are willing… It’s a tricky balance. But good for you for keeping people on their toes and for caring enough to really want to help rather than just enabling them to carry on in unproductive ways…

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