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.