Seems like I've always been broke. First, as a typical starving college student, then later as a 21 year old single mother. There were a handful of years in there when I was actually doing fairly well. I held good jobs and worked hard. But when my daughter was five, we were passengers in a four-car accident that left me permanently disabled and unable to work. It all kinda went downhill from there.
It's strange, really, because I'm not the kind of person one would normally think of as the type that would end up with a cardboard sign on the side of the road. I have a double B.A. from the University of Texas. I've held more than a dozen titles with “Manager” or “Director” in them. And I've never shied away from hard work. Growing up on a horse ranch, physical labor was never an option. It was required. As much as I despised it at the time, I recognize now that's why I was able to work three jobs when my daughter was little just to make ends meet.
But becoming disabled turned everything upside down. It didn't matter how much I wanted to work. I simply couldn't. Not that I didn't try. But in doing so, I made my physical injuries worse, and eventually accepted what my doctors had been telling me for a number of years; a steady job was out of the question.
For the first few years after my accident, I lived off mostly welfare and food stamps. I finally gave in and applied for Social Security Disability. Over the years I've been homeless and hungry, I've gone years with no phone or car or even a proper way to do laundry. The hardships were overwhelming and I did just about everything I could just to keep my head above water. I applied to both government and private agencies for help, went to local churches and food banks, sold any valuables I had, had yard sales, and performed as many odd jobs as I possibly could to supplement the pittance of welfare. The Disability money was better, but despite popular perception, not enough to actually live on. And I'm talking basics here. I don't smoke, drink, do drugs or gamble. I don't travel, or go out to eat or the movies, much less shopping. I have always chosen very modest lodgings, and been conservative with utilities, food, and other expenses. I've made great use of duct tape and Gorilla Glue. And I'm a bargain hunting champ.
All this time, I've managed to squeak by. Barely. Until my daughter turned eighteen this summer. That's when we lost a third of our already meager income. The income shrunk, but the expenses stayed the same. So then I was really in a pickle. After I had exhausted all my other options, I finally realized I only had one more thing I could do: make a sign.
I've only done it a couple of times so far. It truly is a last resort for me. My electricity is due to be shut off today. I live in south Texas where the heat, even in September, is dreadful. And I have a condition that leaves me extremely sensitive to heat. I simply can't be without electricity. And unfortunately for me, the local electric company couldn't care less. They will not extend even another day for me. So yesterday, I made a new sign and positioned myself in a spot where I often see people panhandling.
It wasn't the first time for me. That was last month. And after only a couple of minutes of positioning my wheelchair in a spot that was safe for me and drivers, the skies opened up and dumped rain in a rare monsoon-like fashion. My daughter was with me then and was able to run up to the car windows of the people kind enough to stop, but after less than thirty minutes, a police officer parked next to us, ripped the signs out of our hands and told us to get lost or he'd give us a ticket. Even though we had not broken any laws, I made sure to look them up so that we wouldn't get into trouble, I decided it was best to give up.
So yesterday was my second time. Right away I realized I had forgotten the sunblock, and thought that might be a bad omen. I wound up sitting out there for about three hours, until my skin was nearly splitting from the roasting sun and I could tell my heart was starting to be affected (you know, that pesky condition I have), and I knew if I didn't pack it in, I might be in real trouble.
But as I sat there, I observed a number of things about how people react when a person in need is sitting on the side of the road. Many of which I thought might be interesting to the average person. So I decided to share them with you.
- Some people truly don't notice me, others pretend really hard that they don't. I can tell the difference.
- When you look quickly away, I see you, even though I pretend not to. But I don't judge you for it. I don't judge anyone who doesn't stop to give. Except for the barely twenty-something girl in the shiny new Cadillac, windows down, music blaring, who smiled broadly at me and waved enthusiastically while driving by. I judged you a little. Sorry.
- For those who smirk or give me dirty looks, I'm embarrassed somewhat. But I'm really more embarrassed for you. Because holding such contempt or disgust, or having a complete lack of compassion for someone so clearly down on their luck says much more about you than it ever will about me.
- While a $5 bill will get me closer to what I need than a little coin change from your cup holder, I'm equally grateful for both. A gift is a gift, and regardless of the size, I'm thankful for the kindness coming from a complete stranger. So give only what you feel you can, and I will love you for it.
- One might think that most of the givers are wealthier, the ones that drive the nicer cars. That simply isn't true. Much more often than not, those that stop are the ones in beat up old cars, or otherwise appear that perhaps they don't have as much to share. It seems that those most willing to give are those that don't necessarily have it. Many hand over a dollar or a few quarters and tell me they've been there. I believe them, and am even more thankful for their kindness. People who have struggled seem so much more open to helping others than those who haven't, even if they're still struggling.
- I have for many years stopped to give a few dollars to those I see on the side of the street. But not having much to give, I always felt bad that it was only a dollar or two. Oftentimes, it was the only dollar or two to my name, but as I gave it over I felt the need to say, “I'm sorry, I wish I had more,” or something similar. I now know that isn't necessary. It's nice when people say something, but not needed. Every time a car pulls closer to me and the window comes down, a little flutter of excitement takes off in me. I don't even care how much or how little it is. I'm just so grateful that the person stopped for me.
- I have given out what I call “Blessing Bags” in the past. I've filled them with things a homeless person might need, like a toothbrush and paste, deodorant, a razor, snacks and water, maybe some change, that sort of thing. I've felt good about handing them out, but when a woman getting gas at the station across the street from me walked over and handed me a similar bag, I welled up. Her's had some toiletries, a book about hope and a $5 McDonald's gift card. I was overcome with how much that little bag meant to me, and will forever feel differently when I am able to hand out more of my own bags in the future.
- Accepting that you are in the position that you have to panhandle is difficult. For me, the overwhelming emotions were humiliation, sadness, and defeat. But once I got past that, the actual sitting on the roadside was okay. I always knew there was a chance someone I knew would see me. I felt somewhat embarrassed, but you have to do what you have to do. I was fine until my daughter's ex-boyfriend pulled up. He's still a part of our lives and we still care for each other. He pulled up close to me and handed me a handful of ones, the look on his face told me he was sad for me. And that made me feel sad for myself. And a little more humiliated. A part of me wished he hadn't stopped. Wished I hadn't seen the pity in his eyes. The humiliation I felt was not for where I sat, but for how I had fallen there. It just goes to show, you should never get too comfortable where you are. Bad things can happen to anyone, and some things are beyond the control of even the most put-together people. I suppose the take away is, if you see someone sitting with a sign on the side of the road, perhaps it's best not to make assumptions about how they got there, or judge them for it. Better to just hold compassion in your heart for the place they now sit, and if you can lend a hand in some way, do so. If not, just love them and wish them well.
- When I write, “God Bless” on my sign, I mean it. I believe that when you do for others, the blessings will come back to you. Regardless of your spiritual proclivities, or lack thereof, I want you to know that I wish you well, whether you stop for me or not. I truly believe we are all connected, and when one person is hurting, we all hurt to some degree. When one person extends a kindness, we all benefit from it. And when we choose to be kind to one another, that kindness will come back to us tenfold. But that's way too much to read at a glance, so I leave it at “God Bless.”
In the end, I didn't make enough to pay my electric bill. So it looks like I have no choice but to head back out today. I'm dreading it. The heat, the judgment from strangers, the uncertainty that it will even be enough. But I don't feel I have any other choices.
If you see me, please be kind. You don't have to give me anything, but I wish you could refrain from making assumptions about me or why I'm sitting out there. The perception that people can sit out on the corner for a couple of hours and make hundreds of dollars is false, at least in my experience and of others in my situation that I've spoken to. Maybe in some parts of the country, but don't assume that you shouldn't give to someone who needs help because they're raking it in. They most likely aren't, or they wouldn't be out there. It isn't fun. Trust me. And you might just change someone's life for the better.
And if you do decide to give, don't worry about how it will be spent. For me, it's going to bills or food, or some other basic need. For others, it may be something you don't think is a necessity. But it doesn't matter. When you give to another, it is not your job to demand how it is spent. The gift is in the giving. Once it leaves your hands, you've done your part, and you will be greatly rewarded for having done so. Once I figured that out, I was so joyful in the act of giving that it became something I looked for opportunities to do. Whether it be a dollar, a bottle of water, a blanket, or just a shoulder to cry on. I give whatever I can, whenever I can, and I am so amazingly blessed for it, despite the bumps in my own personal road. Giving is a fundamental part of who we are, encouraged in all cultures, within all religions. Those who lose sight of that will never find true happiness. I urge you to open yourself up to receive the most of what life has to offer by giving, big or small, whenever you can. And if you can't or don't want to give money to a panhandler on the street, just give them kindness. Send some happy, loving thoughts their way. They could probably use it.
“If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” ~Mother Teresa
“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” ~Bible
“For it is in giving that we receive.” ~St. Francis of Assisi
“If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.” ~Dalai Lama
“They who give have all things; they who withhold have nothing.” ~Hindu proverb
“If you have much, give of your wealth; If you have little, give of your heart.” ~Arab proverb
“To give without reward, or any notice, has a special quality of its own.” ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” ~Anne Frank