As I drove up into the store’s parking lot and parked my car, I noticed a child’s stroller directly in front of the store’s entrance. Hanging off the stroller were plastic grocery bags stuffed full of old clothes, blankets and shoes. As I got Marcus out of the car and started into the store, I looked more closely at the stroller. It belonged to a homeless person. I held my son a little closer to me as I looked up and down the small parking lot trying to find the owner.
As Marcus and I headed into the store through the sliding glass doors, I noticed a woman, probably about 60, sitting at a small plastic table having a cup of coffee. She was dressed in dirty, torn clothes. Her hair stuck out of the bottom of a filthy wool cap, in large, matted clumps. Her shoes did not match. Neither did her socks. As we walked by her, she smiled a toothless grin at my young son. “The owner of the stroller,” I thought to myself.
I got a basket and Marcus hopped on the end for a ride. As we started up and down the aisles, I could not get the old woman out of my head. How sad, I thought to myself, to be old, alone and homeless. How often had I walked by people like her thinking that there was nothing I could do to help them. Any handout was simply not enough, so why bother. But this time it was different. I thought of my Mother. I thought of her frailty. Surely this homeless woman needs help. Though she was not asking for it, she was simply having a cup of coffee, getting out of the cold. As I got a loaf of bread and a few bananas, I resolved myself to help her. I would give her some money, but how? She wasn’t begging. She had no can in front of her. I was worried that I would rob her of her dignity by giving her a handout she didn’t ask for. But I wanted to help, so I decided to get twenty dollars cash back at the check-out, ten for her and ten for me.
As we got to the check-out, I placed my items on the belt, got rung up, and when the cashier asked if I’d like cash back I said, “ yes, twenty dollars, four fives please.” I thought about giving the ten dollars to the cashier. I could tell her to just give the homeless woman ten dollars worth of food. But I realized that perhaps they didn’t want her here. “No good,” I thought. “ I have to do it.” As I got my cart, I took Marcus’s hand and headed to the door. It dawned on me that she might spend the money on alcohol. But a gift that is not given freely is no gift at all. If she spent the money on liquor, it was none of my business.
As I got closer to her, I was trying to decide how to give her the money. But I needed to figure this out in the next three steps. I carefully folded the two fives into a small, discrete package, walked up to her, smiled and said, “Ma’am, you look like you could use this.” I handed her the money and walked out the door to my car.As I placed Marcus into the car, I turned to look back through the store window. I saw her smiling at me. She stood up with a bit of a snap to her, got herself another cup of coffee, turned towards me, shot her hand holding the money into the air, then gently placed it on her heart and gave a loud silent thank you. At that moment I realized that I had not robbed her of her dignity, but had given us hope in ourselves.