I was talking with a friend of mine today. She mentioned that she will often donate money to homeless people when she sees them, but, she clarified, “Only to those that look like they really need it and won’t use it to buy cigarettes, drugs or alcohol.”
I’m a firm believer that if you give a gift, you give it from the heart, with no strings attached. Anything other than that is, quite frankly, a chip for a future expectation and not a gift.
In my friend’s case, she was expecting that the money would be used a certain way. But who are we to assume what is the best thing for another person? And how is it even possible to determine that one person is more needy than another?
I don’t think we can. The only person who knows what is best for a person is that person. We can try to anticipate needs or put ourselves in their shoes, but the reality is that we will never know what it is like to be that person…and therefore cannot really know what someone needs.
I shared with my friend a story about a homeless man I knew when I worked in New York City. I would take Metro North in Grand Central Station every weekday and walk to my office. And every day, I would give some money to this homeless man who was in a wheelchair (he was missing one leg) near Grand Central.
Over time, we got to know each other. He had fought in Vietnam and lost his leg there. He came back to the United States after the war, but wasn’t equipped to process everything he saw in Vietnam or to be reintegrated back into life here. And so he chose to be homeless.
He often smelled of alcohol and I knew that sometimes he took my money and used it to buy food, and other times he used it to buy alcohol.
“But,” I said to my friend, “How could I tell him what to do with the money or limit its use to just food? That man has been through so many traumas in his life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Who am I to say that having a drink is bad? Perhaps having that drink is exactly what he needed at that moment to get though the day without killing himself or others.”
I realize that some may think that this is an extreme example, but the reality is that each one of us has problems. Each one of us suffers at some level during our lives. If we are moved to help, that’s great. The best thing we can do is to give lovingly and know, in our hearts, that the recipient will use – or not use – that gift in the manner that is best for them.