Monday, January 19, 2009

Food for thought

Several years ago while visiting New York City, I left my Manhattan hotel room one evening to pick up a sandwich at a nearby deli down the street. The date was July 3, 2002, the eve of the first Independence Day following that city’s 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the streets were beyond crowded with tourists and locals alike.


It was obvious to me and everyone else that I wasn’t one of those locals; unlike the majority of New Yorkers, I actually stopped and waited on street corners until the pedestrian crossing light flashed that it was safe for me to venture into the street. And it was during this stop that a local resident pounced on the opportunity to solicit me for money.


C’mon, man, look how skinny I am,” he declared as he raised his shirt to show me what he felt were grossly protruding ribs. “All I want is 50 cents to buy a hotdog!”


Feeling a little nervous and just wanting to be left alone, I told him I was sorry and that I didn’t have anything to give him. Nonetheless, he followed me all the way to the deli, and I was grateful when he remained outside as I entered to place my order.

But I watched through the window as he attempted to gain handouts from others walking by outside. And in witnessing the repeated rejection he received from people just like me, I began to feel guilty.


You see, there’s a back story to this tale.


Upon my arrival in NYC, my friend and I were taking the elevator up to our room when we were approached by a couple of girls who were on their way out. They’d been in town the last couple of weeks to register for University in the fall, and, because of their extended stay, they had bought an abundance of groceries that would now go bad unless they donated them to a shelter. Given that they didn’t have any more time left to find such a location, they gave the groceries to us with the hope that we could then pass them on to someone in need.


So you see my dilemma here.  


How could I, in good conscience, walk away from this man when I knew I had bags of fresh bread and peanut butter and yogurt and clean water that was intended to go to someone just like him? The Bible's words from Matthew 25:35 echoed in my mind, and I knew what I had to do.


When I left the deli, this man again approached me and gave me the same spiel as before. Clearly he had forgotten that I had already turned him down. Repeatedly.

But this time, as he walked along with me back towards the hotel, I told him that I did have something for him after all. And for the first and only time during our entire encounter, he was quiet. He moved in closer to me and acted as though he was my new best friend.


“So what you got up there?”


I told him that if he waited for me on the corner, I’d run up and get him the bags of fresh food we had at our disposal. And that’s when he turned on me.


“Food?! I don’t want no f****** food! I just want 50 cents to buy a f****** hotdog! Look at my ribs…!”


It was instantly clear to me that he wasn’t going to use whatever money he came across to actually buy a hotdog. And he wasn’t really all that hungry for food.


Furious, I told him off and let him know -- in my own special, angry little way -- that he was out of luck and wasn’t going to get anything out of me.


I’m sharing this story now because just yesterday my mom and I were approached in a grocery store parking lot here in Edmonton by someone claiming to need money. He was exceedingly polite and referred to us as ladies before explaining that he had something very embarrassing to ask us.

He began his story with, “I just got out of the hospital yesterday…” but before he could continue, I cut him off and politely (yes, politely!) apologized and told him that we couldn’t help him.


He looked positively defeated. And shocked that I could be so heartless.  


As he silently walked away, my mom felt bad and said to me that we could have given him some spare change. But as horrible as I also felt, I stuck to my guns. I know that there are genuinely needy people in our city who, due to various circumstances – whether it be mental illness or whatever – have next to nothing. And he could very well have been one of them.


But I just don’t feel comfortable giving away money without knowing that it will definitely go towards necessities like food, shelter, baby diapers, etc. As much as I wanted to believe this young man’s intentions were good, there was a part of me that wondered if the money he was collecting that afternoon was instead going towards drugs or alcohol. And I refuse to support those habits.


There are a number of organizations that do a lot of good work to help our city’s less fortunate, and I feel much more comfortable donating time, money, and supplies to them instead.


The Marian Centre downtown, where my husband and cousin are regular volunteers, is especially good about providing food and basic goods (toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, etc) to anyone who comes through their doors.

And of course the City Centre Education Partnership, for whom we held a fundraiser last October, does amazing things for students attending school in the inner city and who would normally not have access to certain advantages that the rest of us take for granted.


So I’m not entirely heartless after all. Just a little jaded, thanks to the supposedly-starving homeless man searching for hotdogs in New York City.

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