Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Callous or cautious?

So I'm walking back to my hotel in Louisville from dinner the other night and it's well after 10:00 pm. It's a walk of seven blocks, and the first four are well lit and feel pretty safe. It's the last three blocks where I square my shoulders and walk with purpose, as the street turns dark and there's a not-so-friendly vibe.

I cross an intersection and on the corner ahead of me, there's a bus stop with a bench. As I get closer, I see a man and woman - probably in their mid-thirties - with three children: a blond-headed boy about six years old, and two smaller children in strollers. The man is walking back to the bench, just having had his request for money from a guy walking his dog turned down. As I walk by, the woman and I make eye contact. Her shirt is dirty and she's missing a front tooth. "Excuse me sir," she says, "Can I have a dollar so I can get my kids home to bed?" Without a pause, I answer. "Sorry, I can't help you", and I pick up my pace a bit, back to the air-conditioned comfort and safety of The Brown Hotel lobby.

Part of me feels guilty and I keep thinking about that couple and especially those kids. But if they truly needed a dollar for bus fare, why are they hanging out on this darkly dangerous section of the city, when there's a vibrant downtown area, full of people, just two blocks away? Am I naive to think that there must be a place in this city - a shelter, a police station, somewhere - where this young family could get help, even at this late hour? Were they really trying to get the kids home, or was this some kind of scam? And if it's a scam, my heart breaks even more: what kind of life do these kids have?

On that dark street, it didn't seem like a good idea to pull my wallet out of my back pocket.  And I've heard that if you really want to help people out, make a donation to a local shelter, and don't hand out money to folks on the street. So, did I do the right thing by walking by and ignoring the woman's request for money or was I being callous and overly-cautious? What would you have done?


  1. No judging here, but I would have given them money. I know a lot of people don't, I know a lot of people call me a sucker for it, but I can't NOT do it. I've stopped and given $5 to people holding up signs on the entrances and exits to highways. I don't care what they do with the money - I'm doing what feels right for me.

    The kids would absolutely break my heart. I do agree with you that if they aren't really trying to take care of those kids... those poor kids.

  2. Hey Mike,
    Who can say. As a general rule I do not give cash to people on the street, but that's not a hard and fast rule. When I lived in backbay I use to buy an extra muffin or apple for the homeless guy who "worked" my corner. I'm uncomfortable reaching for my wallet and probably would have acted just as you did. Not sure that there is a right or wrong answer here.



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