Give to every man that asks of you…

I took a friend, my bro-in-law, and my daughter to Starbucks by Union Station. An apparently homeless man came in and asked us for money. I really didn’t want to engage him since I had my hands full at that moment. So I shoo’d him away, maybe a little more brusquely than I would like to have done.

My daughter, who has a sweet disposition, glared at me. She went running off after the man across the street down Monroe Street. I could see she had her wallet out and is holding a wad of bills. He was pointing down the street, and the two of them started walking away from where I can see them. I have my friend watch my bro-in-law, and I dash out and catch up with them. My daughter tells me that the man needs baby formula and wanted her to buy some for him at Target. He’s holding whatever money she just gave him. He’s a rugged looking guy, none to happy that I ran up like that. I explain that we don’t have time for her to go with him, but no-harm-done, we wish him the best, and we hope the $6 or whatever will be helpful. He walks off.

As we head back to Starbucks, I started saying all the obvious things about the need for street smarts when strangers ask for money. She was having none of it, and just said: “But Daddy, he looks tired and worn out. Who will help that man?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart.” And I put her onto her train.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “Give to every man that asks of you…”

  1. "One day, (C. S.) Lewis and a friend were walking down the road and came upon a street person who reached out to them for help. While his friend kept walking, Lewis stopped and proceeded to empty his wallet. When they resumed their journey, his friend asked, "What are you doing giving him your money like that? Don't you know he's just going to go squander all that on ale?" Lewis paused and replied, "That's all I was going to do with it."


    The story may be an urban legend. But its lovely nonetheless.

  2. Suggest she also push for reform of our drug laws and penal system, which creates millions of ex-cons pretty much barred from gainful employment for no good reason.

  3. I used to give sometimes, but not all the time. It's embarrassing to admit, but I sometimes used the rationalization that they were scamming me somehow — either they might not be truly needy, or were maybe going to use it for drugs or whatnot. After feeling a little guilty about turning someone down and thinking about it a little, it occurred to me that regardless of the situation, the person needed the money more than I did, and even if I wound up giving money to someone who was not that badly off, it was much more likely that he/she really needed the dough.

    The best part of the deal is that I no longer agonize about whether the recipient "deserved" the money or conversely whether I'd been hardhearted to someone in dire straits. The peace of mind is worth a lot more than any money I spend.

  4. When I was in Cambodia with my daughter, when she was 4 or 5, there were a great many beggars, and she asked me which she should give coins to. The ones missing legs, I replied. It seemed like a distinction she could intellectually and emotionally parse at that age. I'm sure you're well aware of the amount of ordnance we dropped on a non-enemy country, and their absolutely appalling landmine problems. There are three or four amputees per block in Phnom Penh.

    So two years later we were in Paris for a night or two en route to an assignment in the Balkans. She's about 6. She bugs me for some euros, I give them to her, and she runs out of the café on the Champs d'Elysees and up to a woman in a mink coat and a $2500 string of pearls, diamond earrings, and probably an equal amount of Versace or Chanel draped over her, whose wheelchair is being tended by a valet in a tuxedo, and my daughter hands her several euros, much to the grand dowager's surprise. They spoke briefly.

    She walks back and nods solemnly at me: "She was missing a leg. Cancer. I told her the money could by her some aspirin or a stiff cocktail, in case she got phantom pains. Did you know that amputees can feel their missing legs hurting or itching?"

    And ya know, I could have explained to her the distinction between Madame Pompadour and a Cambodian street urchin — but I figured there was nothing to be gained by discouraging that instinct in her.

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