When I lived in Baltimore, I regularly came across men, women, and children living on the street. Almost daily I’d see their dirty faces and the desperate look in their eyes as they watched me read their cardboard signs.
This story completely changed the way I read those signs.
The 5-Minute Story That Shook Me To My Core
An old boss of mine was eating a late lunch at a nearly-deserted Subway in DC. At one point he looked up from his footlong Italian sub to see a 40-something woman walk through the door.
She was filthy. Her knee-length skirt was stained and tattered, and her long hair was stringy from the absence of shampoo. She smelled of garbage.
The caddy of random belongings she wheeled behind her made it immediately apparent that she was homeless.
The woman sat down at a table across from my boss, and try as he might to avoid eye contact, their gazes eventually met. He smiled politely, but she didn’t smile back. She did, however, ask gruffly and curtly for $20.
Acting as he had been taught, my boss declined to give the woman cash, assuming she’d use it to buy drugs, alcohol, or some other substance he didn’t approve of.
But if she’d like a sandwich, he said, he’d be more than happy to buy her any one on the menu.
She didn’t want a sandwich. In fact, she grew visibly irritated at the suggestion, and got up in a huff and left.
The Surprising Reality
When my boss left the Subway, he was confronted with the homeless woman again; less than a block away she was curled up on the street next to her caddy of sparse belongings.
Curiosity got the best of him—he just had to know what she really wanted that $20 for, if not for a turkey and cheese sub smothered in mayo. Being the daring guy that he is, he knelt beside her and asked.
Her answer was surprisingly direct.
There’s a store down the street, she said—a little less gruffly than before—and it’s selling jeans for $20. I can’t go another night out here in this skirt…the men won’t leave me alone.
My boss was stunned as he realized that this woman, homeless and vulnerable in her skirt, was being sexually violated every night.
He had naively wanted to treat her to Subway; what she wanted was a pair of pants to better protect herself from sexual assault.
It was a request he never could have anticipated.
He gave her the $20.
Re-Thinking Our Assumptions
I find this story so jarring. It is a story about the assumptions and judgments we often make about people in need. It’s about how we automatically place blame and how we diagnose situations with which we are probably not familiar.
Thank goodness, I have never been homeless. So how would I know what a homeless person really needs? Why should I be the one deciding what’s best for them?
The most basic lesson I take away from the story is this:
Give freely, give compassionately, and give without judgment.
It is not up to me to decide who is or is not deserving of my help, for I can never know the whole picture. My job is simply to show compassion for those less fortunate than I am, in whatever way I can.
What’s your gut reaction to this story?