Maybe it was the article I read. The one about how mensuration is a nightmare for homeless women. It recommended keeping an old purse filled with pads and tampons in your car to give to a homeless woman should you see one. Or maybe it was the fact that someone I love and respect very much had recently mentioned a myth so many people believe. She told me she doesn’t give money to beggars because some of them make 60K a year. I gently told her that was impossible, an urban legend.
Either way, something got to me.
I’d ignored countless homeless people on that corner. The overweight woman with the spacey eyes, old men with gray stubble, some holding signs declaring their veteran status. There was the old lady I accidentally made eye contact with and had to scramble to find some money as she approached my car when she mistook my gaze as an invitation. I even ignored the family with the little girl, all while drinking my Starbucks and staring straight ahead at the red-light.
But last week as I drove to pick my son up from school, I saw her. She was standing on that corner.
I passed her and stopped at the red-light. I thought about the purse idea. I thought about how street life would be particularly difficult for women. It occurred to me that it would be damn near impossible to live on the street, begging for money, and not end up prostituting yourself. I thought about her standing there. I felt certain there was a slim chance she’d made it to this point in her life without experiencing the horror of sexual violence. Statistically, it’s nearly impossible. I wondered if she’d have to sacrifice her body today. Would she have to use the only thing she has left as a form of currency? Would she have to spend a few minutes allowing her mind to travel elsewhere, pretending what was happening wasn’t really happening?
There was no one in the right-hand turn lane. When the light turned green I took a sharp right instead of going straight. I drove back around, searching for my wallet as I did. Inside I had a one, a five, and a twenty. I pulled up to the stop sign and looked in the review mirror to make sure I wasn’t blocking traffic. No one was behind me.
I rolled the window down and stretched my arm out, holding the money towards her. I kind of wiggled it around a bit, immediately regretting the gesture, like I was offering food to a dog. She approached tentatively and started to reach out her hand.
Then she looked down and saw that it was a twenty-dollar bill. She pursed her mouth in distrust, her face crumpled and she asked, “Are you serious?”
Then her eyes met mine, and she could see I wasn’t playing some cruel joke on her. The dam broke wide open. Her head shaking back and forth as if to say, “No no no.” The quickness with which she started sobbing pulled hard at my heart. She choked out, “Are you sure? Really?” with tears streaming down her cheeks. The desperation in her voice is something that cannot be captured in writing.
My eyes burned. “Yep” was all I could manage while nodding my head emphatically.
She snatched the money quickly and thanked me, then hurried back to the curb.
I drove off and saw her in my rearview mirror, still sobbing.
I was wishing it had been $100.
I was wishing I had said more to her. I wish I had told her, “The world still needs you. You’re not worthless.”
After I picked up Oz I told him what I did. Then I had to explain to him why some people are homeless, because this is an impossible concept to a four-year-old.
“But Mom,” he said, “we have to go back and get that lady. We have to bring her home so she can take a bath and sleep in a bed.”
“Buddy, I know. I wish we could do that but she’s still a stranger. You can’t just bring a stranger into your home.”
“But she won’t be dangerous Mom. She’s not dangerous, she just needs our help.”
So then I explained to him what mental illness is and why it is that some people just can’t function normally.
“Well, I know how we fix that too,” he said, “We go get the homeless people and we feed them and let them take a bath and then we bring them to the doctor. And the doctor can give them medicine to fix their brain.”
“I know buddy. I’d love to do that, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.”
“Yes it is Mom.” he replied annoyed, as if I just didn’t get it.
We drove on home. The barren branches of the trees stood out against the winter sky. I was high on the kind of joy that only comes from helping others.
Then I felt dirty in my privilege.
I felt like the rich lady patting herself on the back for attending a charity ball. My kids chatting away, strapped into their expensive car seats, being driven to their big warm house to watch cable TV and eat balanced meals. Headed to a home where they are loved and wanted.
I thought about that woman. I thought about her mother. I thought about the day she was born. I have always done this when I see someone who has hit rock bottom. I picture them as a newborn. I imagine that someone felt joy about their existence.
Then I thought about my own daughter. I thought about how sometimes life can spin so utterly out of control. I imagined my daughter homeless and then I shook my head to remove this image thinking, “No, never never never. That could never happen.”
I know so many people will read this and say the usual refrain, “But she’s probably just going to spend it on drugs or alcohol.”
I bet she is, and I don’t care.
I don’t want to play moral police when it comes to helping beggars. A person, literally begging, stripped of all dignity and pride.
In that moment when I saw her I just wanted to give her one day.
If she’s an alcoholic or a junkie, I bought her one day without the shakes. A day where maybe she could afford to get right and get a full belly.
That’s enough for me.
I saw her and my heart hurt. I refuse to harden my heart towards someone else’s baby girl.
Maybe my boy was right. It really is that simple.