Lessons from the Street

When the guy approached in the strip center parking lot early one Saturday morning and told me his story, I fell for it. He said he had driven all night from Ohio with his family, had no money and ran out of gas. We walked to his car, saw his family and the cynic in me, checked his license tag. He just needed $20 and he’d be able to buy gas and get home. I gave it to him. So did my wife later that day when she came to return what I’d bought. When we shared the stories, we felt like chumps.

Then there was that day when the visibly upset women approached my wife in another strip center early one evening. The woman told the story of leaving her husband who beat her. My wife walked with her to the old car and was introduced to the precious, poorly dressed children. She fell for it and gave her money. When she saw the same woman the next day and was approached again, she felt deeply betrayed.

Then there was that time when a homeless man came to our door and asked for help. We gave him money and food under the condition he never come to our house again. He returned the next day. And the next. He said he wanted to work for the money and food and offered to wash our car. My wife, in a moment of tough love and generosity, told him she’d give him $10 to wash our daughter’s car that had been parked for months and desperately needed it. He, of course, washed our car – the clean car. When he came back the next day, he said he was cold and I gave him one of my coats. The next morning he was at our doorstep again. This time, he said, “I really don’t like this coat. Do you have anything else?” He went on to say that he was ready to go to the shelter we had suggested and if we’d give him a ride to where the bus would take him, he’d go. Half way there, he said, “Damn. I left my cigarettes in your coat.” So, of course, we drove back to our home, retrieved the smokes that he could afford even though he couldn’t afford food and took him to the bus stop. As he was getting out, the man, well, passed gas. I said to my wife, “at least he left us a little something to remember him by.”

We all have stories. When someone needs help, and we can, most of us do. But are we really helping?

A few years ago, a friend had cards printed with addresses and phone numbers of shelters and organizations who help the homeless. He’d tape a MARTA token on it (MARTA no longer uses tokens and MARTA cards are expensive).

Another friend, Clay, kept a box of energy bars in his trunk to give to people who were hungry. He explained to me that helping the homeless should be left to professionals. That it was way too complicated, and potentially dangerous, for individuals to get involved.

When I first moved near Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, being the liberal do-gooder that I am, or pretend to be, I’d stop and engage each person that I thought was homeless. I got to know dozens of men (women don’t do well living in Piedmont Park). I began as a naïve missionary. Each day I’d go for my walks with a budgeted amount of money to hand out if asked and cards or literature on shelters and programs that teach men how to get off the street. One by one, I saw that these men who had asked for my money for transportation shelter or food, instead, spent it on beer. Each would eventually get arrested for public drinking or drunkenness. I don’t give money anymore.

For a while, I’d tell homeless men, if they were hungry, I’d feed them. My wife and I quickly turned into a short order cooks. I also stopped that idea – it was impossible to sustain. Though, and as result of the leftovers from LikeTheDew.com’s Deviled Egg Recipe Contest judging, they did ask me, “why did all those deviled eggs taste so different?” They also offered their votes, which were not included in the contest judging.

Over the years, some of the homeless men would come and never be seen again, but others seem to live in the park permanently. I gave them clothes when they needed them, until they started asking too often and I had to stop. Ditto on razors, soap, and dental supplies. Ditto sleeping bags, tarps, blankets, phone cards, MARTA cards and the like. And then, I met Donnie.

Donnie painting Tee ShirtsDonnie was special. He didn’t belong in the park. He was in his late twenties. He had worked as an artist and animator and lost his job. Got depressed and started drinking or doing drugs and lost his family. He was clean now and you could see it in his face. The guy had more charisma and charm than almost anyone I’d ever met. He didn’t ask for it, but one day I bought him a business: paints, brushes, a portable easel, a few dozen blank tee-shirts and a backpack to carry them. Donnie was like a kid at Christmas. He went to work painting the most incredible original art on shirts. He sold them in the park. I told him that when he ran out of shirts, I’d re-stock him and I did. Donnie sustained his life and saved some of the money he made to start over. Then one night, the inevitable happened. He was robbed. When I next saw Donnie, he didn’t ask me to buy him another art kit. He told me, instead that he had called his mother in Alabama and asked if he could come home. She wired him the money for bus fare. He just wanted to say thank you and good-bye. I still hear from him from time to time through his cousin. He now has a job, a place of his own and is still close to his mom and family.

Then there was Terrell. Terrell was also special. When I met him, he was living with a girlfriend and was working in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant. Every few days, he’d prepare a meal, with ingredients donated by his restaurant, and serve it picnic style in the park to some of those, less fortunate. We admired his sharing nature and also contributed. I don’t know if was drugs or booze, but Terrell had a dramatic falling out with the restaurant. He also had one with his girlfriend and started calling the park his home.

Terrell was in his early thirties. Healthy. Smart. And motivated. The park was just temporary. He approached people who lived in the neighborhoods around the park and asked to do odd-jobs – yard work and the like. It worked for a while, but wasn’t enough to get him on his own. My wife and I befriended Terrell. We even broke the cardinal rule and invited him and his new girlfriend into our home. We got him a cell phone from the federal program. We helped him get an apartment with an organization that helped couples get off the street. The apartment deal was pretty straightforward: he was expected to work and pay $100 a month. He also was required to have regular drug testing. He made it on his own the first month. His girlfriend left him the second month and we helped out with the money he needed for rent. The third month he was back in the park. Terrell, we learned, couldn’t – and didn’t want to – pass the drug test. That was almost two years ago. Terrell has been arrested five or six times since then – three times in one month alone – stupid stuff – drinking on the bench near 10th Street and jaywalking. He’s lost about 50 pounds and his eyes are always glazed over.

We don’t have much to do with Terrell, but some months back, he approached me and told me a story. He said that he’d heard about a doctor who would diagnose him as bipolar and about a lawyer who could then get him disability. Disability, plus food stamps were his plan to get his life together. In exchange for a couple of hundred dollars a month, he would never be able to get a real job again – the price of disability. I begged him to reconsider and get help. I saw Terrell last week. He has been approved for disability.

Then there was last week. I met this kid standing near our little midtown grocery store. He was hungry and I walked him inside and bought him a sandwich. I’m sure you have seen him, too. Early twenties. Hair long and unkept. Sad and lonely expression on his face. Layers of dirty clothes with his shirts out. His pants were so low that at least six inches of his underwear was showing. I’m no snob. I’m all for individual expression – in fact, I am sure that many would suggest I have my own unique “style.” But I couldn’t help thinking while I was talking to this young man, “no one will ever get a good job with underwear showing.” (Note: I know that for some of you, this is straight line and there’s some joke that might suggest that is not true for the opposite gender – not PC.)

As strange as it sounds, I sometime fantasize about how to solve the homeless problem. I daydream of getting donated land and building a new form of inexpensive and efficient housing. I consider little things, like lockers to protect what they have. More public bathrooms. Utilizing some of the empty and bankrupt condo buildings. But each time my daydream comes around to one problem that I cannot figure out how to overcome: drugs and booze, which is connected to crime, which is connected to violence. How can it be solved?

Leave it to the professionals. Leave it and support those organizations that help large numbers of people survive, while each night having a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. Leave it and support those organizations that help one person at a time learn how to believe in themselves and society again. Google or Bing it, search terms: (your city) and homeless shelters. If you are in the Atlanta area, contact the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. They also have a 24-hour help line. Or the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency.

Or, at the very minimum, follow our friend Clay’s example and give them an energy bar.

15 thoughts on “Lessons from the Street

  1. tom ferguson

    i’m touched by your generosity Lee… there are the con artists exploiting and thus hurting homeless people and there are con artists at the congressional level, enacting legislation that will create what i’m afraid will be a major increase in homelessness. as they dismantle our economy and the meager humane aspects of our social order. drives me ca-ra-zy! to hear them rail against “increasing the buden of taxes” for the wealthy but seem to have zero compunction about increasing the burden of living on less for social security, medicare etc; receipients.

    1. Lee Leslie Post author

      I weren’t so, but you are right on. Many us grew up when we rallied to end poverty. Now, we don’t even seem to have the political will to stop it from getting worse.

  2. Monica Smith

    In order for givers to give, there have to be takers to take. It’s a mutual sharing relationship. Givers are often tempted to expect something more in return, some token of subservience (the promise to submit to the rules at a shelter is one). But, the act of sharing and having one’s gift accepted should be enough. To expect subservience is negates the impulse to give.
    It is shameful that we have a growing homeless population even as we have a growing number of peopleless homes (full-time and part-time). However, keeping up a home is a lot of work and requires all sorts of skills with which many humans seem unequipped. Household management is a prerequisite for civilization, but it’s not an ability that comes naturally to all. Indeed, when we consider the behavior of other species, we see that some construct shelters for themselves and their progeny and others rely on speed and cunning to evade those who prey on them. Why should humans be any less diverse? The fact that they are universally able to interbreed does not mean diversity has been eliminated from the DNA.
    I still think the most telling thing about Darwin’s finches, which led him to the hypothesis of distinct species developing in response to unique environmental conditions, is that when the unique environments petered out, the finches all returned to the general form. The speciation was a short-term situation. In the case of humans, I’d argue that each individual is a unique species and as each person dies another species goes extinct.
    If talented people find fulfillment in sharing with the talent-deficient, then aren’t the later making the blooming of the talent possible. If you want to share, fine. If you don’t, don’t and don’t feel guilty. Of course, the takers have the same obligation to be satisfied with taking and not succumb to making demands.

    1. Lee Leslie Post author

      Monica, yours is beautiful argument. In a nation that seeks to reward only those who can follow the defined path of the established order, those of us who cannot, become outlaws, and too often fall victim to Darwin’s law -- perhaps, over an eon, we will adapt. The fatal flaw in my wish, is that in adapting to survive now, people with great potential who find themselves on the street, too often adapt by becoming adept at the con, or the little lie, or the minor theft, or something else that actually makes it all the more difficult to rejoin society and reach the potential.

      I have no guilt. I cannot not share. It is part of my nature. That said, I suppose it is easy to be empathetic when you know so completely that but for a minor change in circumstance, I’d be there, too.

  3. Cyndia Montgomeru

    Your generosity is very touching. The argument might be made that if you can save ONE person through giving to many, it would be worth it. Or perhaps one can choose to only focus on the failures.
    In every instance, we are only responsible for the giving side. The receiver (I choose to use that word rather than “taker”) is responsible for what he chooses to do with it, and often makes bad choices.
    I was having this conversation with my daughter this week concerning my son, who through irresponsible choices he has made, injured his foot and is unable to work. Disability checks are only a fraction of what he makes at his job, and the state of California is not swift in releasing checks. My daughter expressed concern that if she sent him money, he would use it on weed or beer, rather than on rent or food. I agreed there was that possibility, given previous behavior. However, I told her my criteria for giving is: 1) only give what you can afford to give, and 2) give with no expectation as to its use or repayment. My hope is that whatever money she and I send that it will be used to sustain his life, but that there are no guarantees.
    My father-in-law ran a drugstore with an old-fashioned lunch counter. When approached by someone asking for money, he took them to the store and put them to work, so they could earn their lunch. If they were unable to work, he fixed them a plate and took it to them. He never gave money.
    The only thing that is certain is that there are going to be more homeless and hungry people in our lives, and we hope it won’t be us. I agree when you say support the professional organizations that provide food and shelter for the homeless, but I will also add volunteer with them. Those organizations suffer from lack of volunteers as much as lack of funding. But if I’m approached by someone asking for help? I’ll use my judgement and sometimes I’ll give. I’m thinking you will too. 🙂

    1. Lee Leslie Post author

      Thank you, Cyndia. Just this morning, I saw a young man (early 20’s, wonderful smile, healthy, smart, engaged, hasn’t yet learned the con or fell victim to the tasted of crack) who I remembered from a couple of years ago. He had appeared in the park on Wednesday. Told me the story of getting a good job, had his on place to live, etc. for a couple of years. Things were great. One day, the system found him. It seems that when he was a teenager, he and his brother got into trouble and there was an outstanding warrant from way back. He had to serve 90 days to pay his debt to society and, of course, lost his job, his house and his life. I told him that he didn’t belong in the park and that he must get away.

      This morning, he was at the bus stop. He said that he had called his mom in Jacksonville and was on his way. He told she had arranged a job for him at the local Coca-Cola plant where she worked. He had never asked me for a dime. He did and I had no cash or coin on me. I walked all the way back to where I live, grabbed a handful of quarters from where we through and walked back to him with enough to buy him a Subway sandwich.

      I sincerely hope that in telling this story, it doesn’t come across that it is about me. It isn’t. The story is about us. The impossible solution versus all of us who are in it with them. I do not have the money to do great things, but in doing little things, I can live a little easier (assuage the potential of guilt) with the fact that I am more fortunate. With few exceptions I give for selfish reasons. I don’t pretend that any one act can change much of anything for those that interact with. I do believe with all my heart that we must keep goodness alive.

  4. Bob Lamb

    Great story. I, too, have been duped by the hard-luck stories, but yours is a beaut. I would have bailed long before the guy brought the coat back.

  5. Mark

    You remind me of my first few years in Atlanta, Lee. My late wife took ill not long after our arrival and I was already taking care of my grandmother and her dementia. When I could get a few hours to myself, I’d go for walks, mostly sticking to neighborhoods within a few miles of the various MARTA stations. I really enjoyed wandering between Pershing Point and Castleberry Hills, usually going down Peachtree, but sometimes taking other routes. I noted the large numbers of homeless, especially the herds of them near Peachtree & Pine. I never felt threatened or afraid, but I was not much worried about my survival since I was spending so much of myself caring for others. Where I’d lived before, Birmingham, I used to carry a cooler with drinks & sandwiches when able and offer homeless folk these when they approached for money. It was easy to sort out the truly needy from the substance abusers because the former would gratefully accept sustenance while the latter would curse me and demand money. I came across a cheap source of socks, light jackets, gloves and the like shortly after beginning my circuits. I began packing them and sandwiches into my backpack which I always carry when I hike around town. It got where I had regulars with whom I spoke, and whose names I knew. If they didn’t need anything, they could always point me to a new member of the “community” who could use some of the items. I did this for a few years. After the deaths of my charges at home, I undertook building a new life for myself and I haven’t been on one of those walks in a long time. I do still sometimes end up those areas and see a few familiar faces.

    Thank you for reminding me of those walks and the people I briefly befriended.

  6. Mark Dohle

    I am deeply touched by your compassion and deep empathy for others. Not sure I could ever do as much as you have done for the needy. Also thanks for sharing Donnie’s creations, I really loved the art.

    I am not sure there is an answer to the homeless problem, at least not at this time in the United States. I allow myself to give monies at certain places only here in the Conyers area. I have given some money and then see the men go over to a fast food restaurant to get some food, at other times I am sure the money is used for other purposes. Most, I think are just trying to get home. I tend to tell myself that people who take advantage are in survival mode, perhaps caught in a downward spiral that they can’t stop, so I don’t really mind, but wish it were otherwise.

    Also, if I made a habit of overlooking those in need, I feel very strongly would do damage to my soul and also hinder me in deepening my need to feel compassion and empathy for others. Not sure it is a good thing to try to hide from the pain and frustration that can come with giving to others who perhaps take advantage of those of us more fortunate.

    I have known a women for 20 years, I call her Janet. It has been quite a dance over the years. When I start to feel some resentment towards her, it is then I know that I have crossed a boundary and need to pull back some. So now there are certain things I help with. Rent, once a month, twice when there are five weeks of rent and help some of her medical needs, also I give some gas money for her car. A certain amount every month; enough for two round trip taxi services if she does wish to drive. I will no longer go shopping for her or drive her to the doctors. I was open with her, and told her the reasons why I was doing this and I think she understood. She is bi-polar and also has some other issues, though not sure what the diagnoses would be. So she is kind of trapped in a life that she can’t get out of; so I don’t mind helping her. She is also on a very limited income and would be out on the street if others did not help her.

    Once the bottom rung on the social ladder is arrived at, it is very difficult to get back up to some higher level. If someone has mental illness or is an addict, well then it is impossible, at least for most to even begin the climb upward.


    1. Lee Leslie Post author

      Mark, you do more each day as a caretaker than I have done in lifetime. Thank you for sharing your stories and it demonstrates that you are wise. The bottom rungs make it almost impossible.

      Here’s another story: when my niece got involved in drugs and drug-related crime, and was in the criminal system, I called the district attorney who was an old friend, and asked for some candid advice. He told me that she wouldn’t be in jail long. That the system had determined long ago that there was no benefit to society to keep drug users in jail. That it was simply not cost effective. That if drug users were let out on the street, they would be dead soon enough.

      His comments were candid and cynical. There is little political will to rehabilitate. That solutions for drugs, poverty, and mental illness were too difficult and too expensive. He told me that she’d have another chance, but her life expectancy was short. My niece is far from overcoming all of her problems, but with some bumps, she is still trying. She was fortunate that she got involved in a church that helped her and continues to. She could have joined NA or other organizations and found similar support. But those on the bottom, need organized, and long-term help. It is almost impossible to make the climb upward alone.

  7. Jack deJarnette

    Those are all beautiful stories of where life leads some, the receivers, and others, the givers. I enjoyed reading your story as well as the comments that followed it. As a Pastor for thirty years and prior to that working at “The Gradies” I have heard them all. Certainly, there are people on the streets who don’t want to be there and there are others who don’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t really believe that, I think it is an excuse) because it is far more difficult to overcome the miseries they suffer than to continue to be trapped by them..

    I am thankful for the decisions that I made that have kept me off the streets thus far, but with a waning economy, no--a crashing economy, I might find myself there yet. I honestly don’t know why I made some good decisions and I don’t know why I didn’t get caught for the wrong ones that I made, but here I am. I dare not say it is by the grace of God because then the question becomes, “Why did God grant me grace and refuse it to someone else. If I were a Presbyterian I’d have a simple answer, but as a Methodist that question looms too large for my little mind.

    I understand the power of addiction being an addict myself, fortunately my addiction is an acceptable one.

    One of the things that I sometimes is givea card with the homeless shelters and other sources of help printed on one side. On the other they say, “Go have a beer on Jesus and me or if you’d rather use this to go where you can find help”. I attach $2.00 to each.

    Of course we don’t have the numbers of homeless that you do in Atlanta, however, our city and county authorities are trying desperately to make panhandling illegal.

    I have always led my churches in both volunteer work and giving financial aid to those who work with the homeless. It is a heartbreaking endeavor. It is getting much worse here because being a military town so many are young people coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan mentally and sometime physically broken from their experiences.

    Answers--none. Questions--hundreds.

    1. Lee Leslie Post author

      Jack -- great comment. I have met a number of vets who are homeless. Many who are able to go to the VA for help with addiction and PTSD, but the VA cannot help them much with getting a home and a sustainable job. Cycle after cycle, I have seen them return. Seen them get picked up by the police (who also have an impossible job, are under tremendous pressure by the business community with little resources to effect change, and need our support) for a petty crime. A prison record in the US, makes it almost impossible to ever find a sustainable job again. “Answers–none. Questions–hundreds.”

  8. Austin McMurria

    Concerning your fun post today -- the homeless chronicles… we want more. I suggest a series. I have heard several others I bet you could roll into great storytelling like “Lessons from the Street.”

    The guy giving y’all the toot, so to speak, after refetching a returned donated coat, reminds me of my first bus ride in London. This drunken wisecracker gets on and burrows his smelly self next to a ruther fastidious type actually in a bowler and tweed -- seriously. Well the bus comes to an abrupt stop. That gave rise to the tipsey man’s ill wind. The well dressed man at this juncture acosted the drunk, “How dare you flatulate before my wife!” -- which was met with the reply ” I didn’t realize it was her turn.”


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