Last week I got a free burrito at Chipotle because of their promotion, and while I was there I purchased a gift card specifically to give to a homeless person. I saw a man almost immediately after walking out and gave it to him.
“Ben,” I greeted him yesterday when I saw him again, feeling a little proud that I’d remembered his name.
“Oh hey,” he responded. We chatted for a moment and he said that he remembered my face, but not where we met. I reminded him, and he said, “Oh yeah! I used it to get a burrito bowl. That’s easier than a burrito, because the tortilla is hard with my dentures.” He pulled out his retainer to show me. “You know, I’m kind of hungry now . . .”
I had some time, so I took him to Noodles and Company for lunch. I asked what had put him on the street asking for money. He told me that he’d had an infection in his hand several years ago, and it left him with decreased motor control plus pain with repetitive tasks. He said he used to work for a lot of restaurant-type places and on construction jobs, and that he recently applied for a job to bus tables and is waiting to hear back from them. I asked him where he sleeps, and he says he knows people who will let him sleep on their couch for $15 or $20 a night, plus he can shower and keep his other clothes there. He said sometimes they won’t want him to stay because they have guests or something else, and on those nights he’ll find a motel for around $50 if it’s really cold. He mentioned that he has a sister living a few towns away, but otherwise no real family or friends, only acquaintances.
He told me that when he’s asking for money on the street, some people are very nice and some are very mean. Recently a man gave him $200 and suggested that he use it to take a bus or train somewhere warmer, but instead he got a motel room for a week. I asked him how much he spends on food on a typical day if people don’t give him food, and he said maybe an average of $10, and that he usually eats at cheap places like McDonald’s. Finally, I asked if he’s ever able to save money up, or if he just lives day to day. He said day to day.
Budget-happy Rose did some quick math. If he pays $15 a night to sleep, that’s $450 in a 30 day month. $10 a day for food if no one gives him food, so maybe $5 a day on average makes $150 for a 30 day month. That’s $600 per month, plus anytime he gets a motel room. I didn’t ask about any other costs, like transportation or miscellaneous expenses.
I have so many thoughts about what I could do if it was me. There are some apartments listed as $450 per month or less, and $150 is more than enough for a monthly food budget if you a) can cook some things and b) have some cooking items like pans and spoons and such. It seems like it would be easier to get a job after having an apartment, because not being sure if you have a place to sleep/go home to seems debilitatingly stressful. Of course I’d have to save up enough for a security deposit and first month’s rent, which would be especially difficult on cold nights when that $50 motel room is looking like the best thing in the world.
Anyway, I could write up a whole plan for what I would do if it was me. But it’s not me. Our histories, skillsets, world knowledge, motivations, resources, and stressors, are so different. The perfect plan for me isn’t the perfect plan for him. What I would need in that situation is probably not what he needs.
Did I help him by buying lunch with him and talking to him? Nope, or at least not much. More than the food itself, it could have been nice for him to talk to someone, though I don’t know that for sure. I do believe that small acts of kindness go a long way, but just giving people things won’t make them fulfilled. It’s not my job to ‘save’ anyone, and it never will be. Maybe someday I’ll be in a position to create more positive opportunities for people, which in a nutshell is what I am starting to believe that every person needs.
Did he help me? Definitely. Whether his story was 100% truthful or not, I learned a lot by talking to him. I prayed before our meal, and noticed that he said “God bless” to me several times afterwards, where he hadn’t before. He also only ate half of his meal, taking the rest in a box. He seemed worried that I was going to think that he was going to waste it, and without prompting assured me several times that he would eat it later.
What else? If I talked to him again I might ask more questions about his background, but also what it is that he wants. What would make his life better? Happier? More fulfilling? I know what might make my own life different in these ways, but not anyone else. If I was going to make a plan for reducing poverty, I think I would start by asking people questions instead of just assuming that I know what they need.