For no real reason in October 2014, I made a rule for myself: I would not give homeless people a dollar when they asked me for change. I would give them more than a dollar, every time I was asked, for a year.
I know people have all sorts of reasons for not giving money to panhandlers or homeless people when asked: They are going to use it to buy alcohol or drugs. They are lying when they say they’re a veteran/out of work/have children/are diabetic/native American/whatever reason they have. You’re enabling them. You should give them food instead of money, because then they can’t use it to buy alcohol or drugs. Some people say panhandlers make more money than people with full-time jobs. Obviously there’s some truth to some of these concerns.
But I wondered, what if I spent an entire year just helping people every time they asked, instead of judging them? What would happen?
Well, the first day I decided I would do this, I was driving from Denver to Utah, and I pulled off Interstate 70 in Grand Junction to get gas and a cup of coffee. At the end of the off-ramp, there was a guy holding a sign that said Anything Helps. A woman I assumed was his wife or girlfriend sat in the shade next to a concrete wall. I had two $20 bills in my pocket. Shit. Rules are rules. I rolled down the window and handed the guy one of them. He graciously thanked me, and I drove into town, paid someone $3 to make me an Americano, and made a mental note to start carrying more ones and fives if I was going to stick with this rule all year and still be able to pay my rent.
I live on Colfax Avenue in Denver, in a particular spot that happens to be a sort of epicenter for loitering and day drinking for people who don’t mind taking a nice nap behind a bus stop or in the grass next to the curb. Sometimes they look like they literally fell, asleep. And of course the odds that you’ll get asked for change are quite high most days. Once, in a snowstorm, I stopped to take a photo and a guy came up next to me and beatboxed in my ear until I gave him $2. Another time I walked 16 blocks down Colfax to go to lunch and gave a guy $2 on the way there, and the same guy $2 on the way back, because he asked both times. I stopped listening to whatever people said after “hey man” or “excuse me, sir,” because it literally didn’t matter. They could have said “I need money to buy weed” and I had to give it to them. Actually, I think the weed thing did happen once.
There was no Hollywood script-worthy story in my entire year, no unlikely friendship I struck up with a homeless person (although a guy did share a bag of chips with me a couple weeks ago during a conversation about weather and public policy). I didn’t get anyone off the street permanently, or witness a success story. I just helped people when they asked for a little help. I realized a couple things, one being that when someone asked me if I could spare some money, I would be lying if I said I couldn’t. Yeah, maybe I wouldn’t, but I never couldn’t. I used to say that if you can pay someone to make you a cup of coffee, you’re rich, and I still believe that. I also believe that giving a complete stranger $10 makes you feel like the richest person in the world, and not just in a financial sense, because when they say thank you, they really mean it.
I think we assume too often that we know everyone’s story, and at least in this country, we use that as an excuse to act like assholes to each other way too often. We believe we work hard for our money, and we don’t want to give it away to anyone who we think isn’t working as hard.
And I would definitely tell people I work hard for the money I make, but compared to 50 years ago, I don’t. I don’t stand on my feet 10 hours a day, I don’t get tired from lifting heavy boxes or digging holes for hours on end. I get paid to think, and move words around. I tell my dad “It beats the shit out of working.” I sell services at a dollar amount I have decided is fair, and that clients accept because they believe what I do is worth it. I don’t make an extravagant amount of money, but the whole thing sometimes feels like kind of a hustle.
If I told someone who lived in a village way out in the middle of nowhere in a developing country what I did for “work” and how much I got paid to do it, they would probably be incredulous. Especially if I told them I used some of that money to buy a phone that I could use to take photos of food. So, I figure, what’s the difference between my hustle that I tell my dad beats the shit out of working, and people on the street asking me for change, or offering to clean my windshield for a dollar? The way I see it, we’re both bumping along our own version of the American Dream—that anything is possible if you can find the right angle every once in a while.
I didn’t keep track of how much money I spent over my year of never saying no, but I believe it was less than $300 for the entire year. Lots of people say you shouldn’t give money to panhandlers, that you should give money to homeless shelters instead, so I donated $300 to one of those too at the end of the year.
I’m not saying everyone should give money to homeless people, or that anyone is in the same position I am. But it helped me rethink my perspective on what I really need and what I can give away, and how I’m not all that different from the people living on the street. Maybe helping people is something we should do more often without thinking so hard about doing it, or arguing about which ones “deserve” our help more than others. And I extended my contract with myself for another year back in October—I still have enough money to pay people to make me a cup of coffee, so I must still be rich.
19 replies on “The Year Of Helping Every Time“
You continue to inspire. For all your critics, remember that there are always a few that will exploit generosity, a good system, whatever. But when we focus on dealing with those personalities, we forget all those that are really in need. Better to help whoever you can, however you can, as often as you can and pay the cost of very occasionally being taken advantage of.
Not for the first time, I’m floored by something you wrote. To me, it feels like this country is getting less generous at an alarming rate. I like your version better. I think I’m going to start adopting your system, too. Thanks.
You expand our minds and our hearts Brendan. Thank you!
Rachel @ Betty LIVIN
I love this! I do this with fundraising efforts at stores. If a grocery or retail store asks me to donate to one cause or another I ALWAYS give $1 or $2. It’s not a lot but I’m already spending money and every little bit helps.
Brennan, I had this very conversation, almost point for point, with myself (and then my wife) last week.
Occasionally, while living in New York City, which has no shortage of people asking for money on the street, I adopted a “Give to ’em all, and let God sort ’em out” strategy.
Last week, my wife and I agreed: We have two working cars, a solid house, and enough food and clothes, so, really… we are the one percent. Let’s turn around and offer a hand to someone not so lucky.
I’ve never commented before but you’ve had a few posts lately (or ones I’ve read lately) about gratitude or judgement of others, and other similar ideas. I’ve enjoyed reading them and you have done a fantastic job of articulating thoughts that I feel myself.
Thank you for your writing. I look forward to reading more of it.
Brendan, this is awesome. Our society’s default position is don’t give, look away – so I like that you’re engaging. A friend of mine goes the extra mile and will take people he meets who are homeless in for a burger or a haircut. Giving “more than a dollar” is great too. Sure, some people will mis-use that money, but so will the Starbucks execs we give money to.
The bigger question is what can we as average people do about the problem of homelessness generally? After working in a soup kitchen and street outreach / housing in central Brooklyn, I’m very convinced that the single best thing we can do is to support “Housing First” programs. Denver kind of started the whole movement not too long ago. Basically, instead of making people go through the (dangerous, drug-filled) shelter system, get clean (in that shelter), get income, etc, all before they can get an apartment… get them an apartment straight from the street. Then it’s worlds easier to work on everything else they have going on. Better yet, an apartment with social workers on site. So, we can give to the groups doing that work, and we can encourage our elected reps to support those programs, instead of just trying to “clean up” the streets and move homeless people to another city…
Some Housing First info: http://www.coloradocoalition.org/what_we_do/other_support_services/housing-first.aspx
Love it. Great and simple idea.
This line “if you can pay someone to make you a cup of coffee, you’re rich” is so true. In the “western” world we are always looking up at the people with the bigger house, flashier car, more expensive clothes. The reality is that even if we earn only a fraction above minimum wage the majority of the world is still looking at us as being the rich ones with the house, car, clothes.
Brendan, every time you write something super cool/heartwarming/inspiring/reality checking/100% rad, I think, “Man, this guy can’t do better than that shit. That’s just awesome. He should quit now, there’s no topping that.” Then a month or two later, you top it. Props to you for that one man
This is the best thing I’ve read in a long time.
Well, I have to say I’ve never heard anyone else say that they give to everyone that asks. I firmly believe that there are questions with no right answers. I also believe that is some of the reason societies everywhere are experiencing so much polarization. I wonder why it’s so important to come down on one side or other on every issue? I have been thinking about what you are doing for awhile now, do I agree with your actions? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is I think the positive in your actions probably outweigh the negatives. Motive is an important consideration when judging action. It seems to me that your motive here is pure. I like these words, they seem to fit you well. ” We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
Good work! Don’t believe our societies 3 second synopsis of one’s lifelong struggle. A recent study in Massachusetts found that 92% of homeless women
surveyed had experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at
some point in their lives — 60% by the age of 12. Given these high
rates of violence, it is not surprising that many homeless women suf-
fer from emotional symptoms, including major depression (47%), sub-
stance abuse (45%) and posttraumatic stress disorder (39%).
Thank you for sharing this story. Even in Des Moines there is a large homeless population, in shelters and outside. Their tents are a regular occurrence on some of the bikes trails down there too. About six years ago my husband and I saw an ad in the Register (from Hope Ministries) and it stated that they could feed someone a Thanks Giving meal for less than $2 a person. That’s less than the cost of the Sunday paper! We CAN all give. Wonderful write up!
Thanks Brother, a truly inspiring article. I’m signing up for the next year. I truly appreciate your writing.
This is exactly what I needed to hear at this moment. Thank you.
What a great chain of thoughts yet let’s not forgo that the root cause of this is that certain sectors take more and that leaves many out in the cold. I give to those who ask and donate to charity, and at check out counters, yet unless we also act to correct societal injustice how much are we acting to appease our conscience? One cannot turn away from another in need, yet mustn’t we also undertake the hard and joyous work of correcting the underlying cause?
Solid writeup brother.
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