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How Much Is Enough?

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Can you please help me?

homeless woman on the street

Jennifer Ginsberg: My stepdaughter, Haley, and I were walking on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, buying a few last-minute items she needed for her upcoming graduation ceremony when we walked by a middle-aged homeless woman who was begging on the corner. The city of Santa Monica is a glaring example of socioeconomic disparity -- it is common to find a homeless person asleep on the same block as a multimillion dollar home.

Santa Monica occupies a unique place in Los Angeles County as one of a handful of the county's 88 cities to use its own money to fund homeless services. The city is known for its compassion toward homeless people, who overwhelming also suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness. Love them or hate them, the homeless are deeply engrained in the culture of Santa Monica, and as a resident of the city, it is something that I must come to terms with and accept.

Maybe it is the social worker in me, maybe it is upper-middle-class guilt, maybe it is the Jewish teachings that inspire me, but I have always felt the need, at the very least, to acknowledge homeless people when I walk by them. I actually find it impossible to not at least say hello when I pass a homeless person. One of my favorite Jewish teachings is from Rabbi Telushkin, who lives in New York City. He writes about how he has a special container in his house for change, and he always grabs some before he leaves for the day for the express purpose of giving it to the homeless people he encounters.

I also have the responsibility to teach my children how to approach and acknowledge such people. Feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless (together with clothing the naked) are established as the prerequisites of righteousness. It is impossible for an individual to make a claim on piety without first having passed this threshold, according to the Torah. Even poor people are commanded to give to someone poorer than themselves.

How does this translate to my daily life, as I happen upon numerous homeless people each day as I go about my normal activities?

My own rabbi speaks about this topic often. One day, a homeless woman approached me as I was parking my car and asked me for exactly $4.75 because she needed bus fare to get to the doctor. I happened to have that amount and gave it to her. Then, as I walked down the street, I was asked by several more homeless people for change, but I was legitimately tapped out. I felt I had filled my quota for the day, but I didn't like the idea of having to say no to all the other people. I almost felt compelled to tell them that I had just bought another woman's bus fare! When I brought this dilemma to my rabbi, he said:

"Give every person fifty cents."

I love the idea of giving a little to everyone (rather than blowing my non-tax-deductible contribution on one woman's bus fare). But as Haley and I passed this woman, whose face looked both hard and gentle, I saw all the women I had ever loved in her eyes. I saw my mom and my grandma and Haley and Kiana. For some reason, I have always felt like it is sheer luck and privilege that separates me from the women I meet on the street. Fifty cents did not seem like enough. I looked in my wallet and only had big bills (interestingly, I have never considered giving a stranger more than a few dollars), so we went into Starbucks to get change.

"How much are you going to give her?" Haley asked.

"I don't know," I replied, "I was thinking three dollars ... what do you think?"

"I think five," she responded quickly.

We got our change and Haley gave her a $5 bill. She was so grateful that she nearly broke down in tears. "You were the first people to help me all day!" she told us. "Thank you so much."

Haley and I walked down the Promenade silently. We passed other homeless people asking for money, but I had no change and no more bills to spare.

Again, I questioned if I did the right thing. Should I have given everyone fifty cents, or was it right for me to follow my intuition and help only this woman that I felt a special connection with?


next: Disney: Straight and Narrow?
16 comments so far | Post a comment now
Nell July 8, 2009, 9:28 AM

No, you did the right thing. You can’t possibly help everyone in need in this day and age. Everyone is struggling. Think about it. If you tried to only give a mere 10 cents to everyone, you would run out before you even made a dent. I think it is much better to actually help one person to the best of your ability, and sleep at night knowing you gave someone’s child/sister/mother a ride to the doctor. All you can do is pray that the people that were told “no” by you were fortunate enough to bump into another kind soul like yourself and were helped. Don’t second guess yourself. We need more kind and sharing peoople like you, instead of people that judge.

Barb July 8, 2009, 10:52 AM

I struggle with this exact dilemma. I see the same people every day begging for money. Some of them actually scare me (I’ve seen one banging on cars before), but some are very nice and grateful.

I asked my friend about how to handle it (she’s a social worker and has worked with many of the people I see) and she recommends giving them what I can that’s NOT money because they probably use the cash for drugs. So I’ve given food before, either fast food when I see them, or I’ve even packed little lunches to hand out my car window.

I do think it’s important to do what we can for them, and set a good example for our children. Like the author, I feel like luck has left me as fortunate as I am, and I don’t take my good life for granted.

Anonymous July 8, 2009, 12:03 PM

JUST SAY NO!!!

Coral July 8, 2009, 4:44 PM

I hate the bums in Santa Monica. I love the city but it looks like skid row. I just hate being bugged for money. If you try to buy them food they refuse it! If only it were legal get “rid” of them. If you ask me, bums have gotten greedy over the years- they get pissed off if you don’t give them money. Just because you’re poor does not mean you have to be a slob and smell. I remember when I was a teenager and we stoled a bums shopping cart! He chased us for blocks!

Monica July 8, 2009, 8:34 PM

You can’t help everyone. That’s a simple fact. If you felt the compassion to help this woman and she showed appreciation then you know that you did exactly what you were supposed to do.

Honestly its very hard to give to the homeless because sometimes I fell like I do not want to contribute to their bad habits. Like you mentioned some are alcoholics or on drugs. And I feel that I am not going to be responsible for filling the need of your addiction. I grew up in the Los Angeles area and as a teen I frequented the Promenade. I even once did a school project about peddlers and the homeless and used the Promenade as a research subject. And the things that we found was that while some are sincere we had to watch out for those that weren’t. One old woman followed us for a couple of blocks continuing to beg even after we had given her money. The thing about it is to be cautious. Sometimes the best thing is to ask them if there is something you can buy them like a meal or a drink. Like one person said, if they refuse then they don’t truly want the money to use it for something good. Because for most people who are homeless if you offer them a meal they will take it without pause. This is the advice that I give my husband because he’s a giver like you. And because he was not raised in a city like LA (he lived in Indianapolis and they really don’t have many homeless in Indianapolis. I lived there for seven years and only encountered a few) he is not used to the tactics that some alcoholics or drug addicts use to get money. And course growing up on South Central LA I encountered them almost daily when walking home from my bus stop.

Alex H. July 9, 2009, 12:41 PM

“Your personal participation is required.”

I was homeless when I was a kid (18). I also had a job. I lived in the back of a broken-down truck. I didn’t beg. I didn’t ask for help. I helped myself.

My friend, Leon, also lived on the street. He was much older than I was. A good man, kind and caring, he could only hold down a job for brief periods. He was a recovering heroin addict and while he had been off the heroin and the booze for many years, the destruction that they had wrought on his body lived on.

Neither of us asked for money. We did not beg. We asked for favors, “Can I get a ride?” or the like. We had jobs… late night and here and there.

Eventually I pulled myself out of that abyss. I went to college and became an engineer. I owe much of this to a millionaire who helped me. His name was Ed and he didn’t give me money except for one time. I had been working hard for him and hit a bad spot, not my fault and he knew it. I wasn’t asking for anything but he slipped me $50 dollars. I was embarrassed and put it in my pocket. I quit complaining and continued to work. In time I gave him his $50 back. It was the same $50. I had never spent it.

Ed was a millionaire but he didn’t spend money on me. He spent time with me. He had faith in me and encouraged me. Often he yelled at me and corrected my misconceptions. Ed was hard on me when I needed it but I knew he loved me in a way that men used to love each other before people suspected something else. This was real love, the love of brothers.

Ed believed in giving out money at special times like holidays and such. There was an anonymous man who gave out money to the homeless during Christmas and I wondered if it wasn’t Ed that was doing that but it could have been any number of good rich people. There were many in that area of West Los Angeles.

Ed didn’t believe he owned anything. All his property, all his riches were G-d’s own. Ed was only the steward, the trustee. If he did his job well, Ed got to enjoy the use of G-d’s property. If Ed did not do his job well, G-d would take it back from Ed and give it to someone who would.

“Your personal participation is required.”

That’s what Ed told me. Where did he learn this? He learned it from a multi-millionaire, Chuck. Chuck has passed away. I came across the tape of his funeral this morning. Odd that I should do so and then find this posting here… moments later

I think G-d wanted me to tell you this story. I’m not sure why. I’m certainly not giving you advice. Make use of my experience and Ed’s and Chuck’s if you can. I was there on Ohio Street near the Santa Monica City line in November of 1977 wondering how I could live another month.

I am now an Orthodox Jew and a volunteer chaplain at a Texas county jail.

P.S. Ed was not the only person who helped me, so I don’t want to give that impression, but he was in West LA as was Chuck and they started me out in a big way. He taught me about personal participation. It is essential. You don’t have to take in homeless people, but you can help those who do it well…. like Clancy at the Midnight Mission and folks like him.

As Hillel says (paraphrase), “You are not expected to do everything but neither are you excused from it.”

Maybe someone can come up with the exact quote.

Alex H. July 9, 2009, 3:32 PM

Continuing story…

Ed didn’t believe he owned anything. All his property, all his riches were G-d’s own. Ed was only the steward, the trustee. If he did his job well, Ed got to enjoy the use of G-d’s property. If Ed did not do his job well, G-d would take it back from Ed and give it to someone who would.

“Your personal participation is required.”

That’s what Ed told me. Where did he learn this? He learned it from a multi-millionaire, Chuck. Chuck has passed away. I came across the tape of his funeral this morning. Odd that I should do so and then find this posting here.

I think G-d wanted me to tell you this story. I’m not sure why. I’m certainly not giving you advice. Make use of my experience and Ed’s and Chuck’s if you can. I was there on Ohio Street near the Santa Monica City line in November of 1977 wondering how I would live another month.

I am now an Orthodox Jew and a volunteer chaplain at a Texas county jail.

P.S. Ed was not the only person who helped me, so I don’t want to give that impression, but he was in West LA as was Chuck and they started me out in a big way. He taught me about personal participation. It is essential. You don’t have to take in homeless people, but you can help those who do it well.

As Hillel says (paraphrase), “You are not expected to do everything but neither are you excused from doing something.”

Maybe someone can come up with the exact quote.

Mel July 9, 2009, 3:51 PM

I personaly feel the homeless are lazy not all but most of them they sit around all day begging for money when they could be out looking for a job. If you truly feel the need to give them something try a gift card to a food store, coffee shop ect… if you give them cash it most likely will go towards their addiction.

Barb July 10, 2009, 9:41 AM

Alex, thank you for your story and point of view. I hear what you’re saying (I think)—help support organization who help others. But when we see people begging for money on the street, what’s the best response? I ask because I really do care about people, but I’m suspicious and I don’t feel comfortable giving cash. And what about those people who are on the streets for years?

Alex H. July 10, 2009, 4:12 PM

BTW, I was suggesting that everyone helps in different ways and one must find the way he helps best. Sometimes the best way to deal with the homeless is to walk away and help those helping organizations who deal with the homeless best.

As to my response to the homeless, remember that I am a man. I am friendly, spend a little time speaking to them and tell them about Alcoholics Anonymous.

One time I met a homeless man who asked me to join him in raping a woman who was coming out of a store. I politely declined. (He had told me he was carrying a gun in his bag.)

Be careful of the homeless. There is often a VERY good reason why their families refuse to give them money or let them into their homes. Many of them are dangerous or on the edge of sanity. Others are simply grumpy old men, down on their luck. There is no reliable way to tell the difference.

Alex H. July 10, 2009, 4:17 PM

Also, don’t forget that some homeless women are being used by men as a decoy. I met such a woman on the bus. She was actually a very young girl, no older than 19. She was being controlled by two rather muscular young men (around age 25) who were using her as a decoy. (A young girl needing help looks harmless… right?) Look around for someone nearby who is paying inordinate attention. You may find yourself outnumbered and bullied rather quickly.

Mark July 28, 2009, 4:45 PM

Alex, I appreciate your comments, I would dare say while trying to help homeless our experiences have been similar, and I have come to many of the same conclusions. My focus for the most part has been on the mentally ill, think Bipolar/Schizophrenia, their situation is almost hopeless because of a broken system than in many ways works against them from getting any meaningful help. Working with the mentally ill has been rewarding, eye opening, heartbreaking and frustrating experience.

A word of caution, generally the mentally ill are harmless but not always, I have been punched, scratched, jumped on, kicked in the balls twice and one time while transporting a young lady whom requested my help, and was in obvious need of medical attention bit my arm. On the way to a free clinic in my one day old car she decided to exit the car while traveling at 30 mph, while driving with one hand I grabbed her arm with the other, she proceed to bite down hard on my arm and at the same time kick the crap out of my new car ($1700.00 in repairs). That being said, the only times I have experienced any violence is when I have veered from the accepted protocol. I have no feelings of anger towards any of the mentally ill I have encounter, only deep compassion, they are not in control of their minds and therefore not responsible.

There is a solution, it starts at the government level. Two of New York’s greatest accomplishments over the last decade has been removing the dog poop form the sidewalks and dealing with the mental ill homeless, lookup Laura’s law. Laura’s law is in place in Los Angeles County but getting them to act on it has been virtually impossible, you can help.

I hope this is permissible on this site, I am going to recommend two books. The Insanity Offence by E. Fuller Torrey and Crazy in America by Mary Beth Pfeiffer. Both very timely books, they will open your eyes maybe your hearts and hopefully your minds. Peace.

Gloria  August 11, 2009, 8:21 AM

I don’t know about your one comment about sheer luck being that you could be one step away from the woman on the street. I feel that you worked towards being a good person, that takes much work, and God has ways of rewarding the very things that we truly work for. When we put our hearts in to what we are doing, we are doing Gods work. When we put others before our selves we are doing Gods work, you have shown a interest in helping strangers, that for what ever reason are down on their luck. Be it job loss, depression, mental illness, drugs or other addictions. It is a really terrible problem, people need affordable housing. We have something like that being worked on right now in New York, specifically Westchester County. There was a law suit filed 10 years ago, over millions of dollars that was given to a city near where I live, but it wasn’t given to all of the participants of the county. So now they were saying just last night, that they will be looking to build low to moderate cost housing in enighborhoods that are pretty impressive. I say it is about time, at least this is one situation that is going in the right direction. It has to be that we are each others keepers. In the direction of helping people be better than what they think they can be. Sometimes people are a little lazy, sometimes depressed life dosen’t always show great things, but we can try just one person at a time.

Samuel December 16, 2010, 10:35 AM

Thank you for sharing your opinions on how to help homeless people. Your opinions will help me to find a way to proceed with these people, ‘cause I feel I must do something.

Kalena May 10, 2011, 3:42 AM

We know this couple they lost everything in a fire all they have is each other and there dog. My husband and I have knowen them before they lost their house( it was a rental house). They lost everything in the blaze.

Now they can’t get new I.D because they have no address.

They can’t get a addresse because they don’t have first and last months rent.

They don’t have first and last because they can’t get on welfare to get them on there feet again.

They can’t get on welfare because they have no I.D….. and the circles continues

They have also tried to get jobs
no I.D no job
no bank account you need I.D to open a new account.

Here in Ontario its a vicouse loop.(sorry spelling sick flu) So everyday he sits on a bench between zellers and a grocery store. He never ask anyone for a dime or nothing. It was in the local paper(The Fire) So everyone knows them. There are really nice people right now sleeping under a bridge because of a electrical??? something in the wall that cause the townhome to go up in flames they have no children either. It amazing one day I was sitting with him talking while my husband went in a store. People just walked up to him, one had a pizza, one had a bag of grocerys, one gave him a big bag of dog food, and one elderley lady walked up to him gave him a hug and a 20 dollar bill.
He was thankful and Thanked and said God Bless to them all. I know the money he makes he puts away in his pocket when they get enough they spend a night in a hotel. Its been really cold out here. Right now he is still looking for a job he said he would even take a paper route so three days ago he applied I have not seen them since because I have the flu so I have been staying in latley. But my husband and I know: They don’t drink, they’re not drug attacks, just two people and a pup really caught in a rock and a hard place. My husband and him were talking he said he will not allow his wife to beg or sit outside because it’s his job to provide for her. Most of the time he is there and his wife is usually in the library looking in local papers for cash jobs (because they can’t cash a cheque with out I.D(back to the circle)or she is down at the river fly fishing catching trout they cook over a fire for supper. I have spent time with them under the bridge by the river watched her cook the fish while he ran up to Kentucky fried chicken to get tap water to boil they made wamr water drinks just plain warm water there are some other people under that bridge who are homeless as well. Everytime we see him or her we always give him two drinks or two sandwhiches from the grocery delhi. and we had them over for Easter supper. I really am glad the warm weather should be here soon and everynight I think about them while I am lying in my comfortable warm bed they ae under a bridge by a river or hopefully in a hotel for a night. I pray every night they get lucky and find jobs to get back on their feet. we would let them stay at ur house if we had the room but we have 6 children.

Kalena May 10, 2011, 3:46 AM

We know this couple they lost everything in a fire all they have is each other and there dog. My husband and I have knowen them before they lost their house( it was a rental house). They lost everything in the blaze.

Now they can’t get new I.D because they have no address.

They can’t get a addresse because they don’t have first and last months rent.

They don’t have first and last because they can’t get on welfare to get them on there feet again.

They can’t get on welfare because they have no I.D….. and the circles continues

They have also tried to get jobs
no I.D no job
no bank account you need I.D to open a new account.

Here in Ontario its a vicouse loop.(sorry spelling sick flu) So everyday he sits on a bench between zellers and a grocery store. He never ask anyone for a dime or nothing. It was in the local paper(The Fire) So everyone knows them. There are really nice people right now sleeping under a bridge because of a electrical??? something in the wall that cause the townhome to go up in flames they have no children either. It amazing one day I was sitting with him talking while my husband went in a store. People just walked up to him, one had a pizza, one had a bag of grocerys, one gave him a big bag of dog food, and one elderley lady walked up to him gave him a hug and a 20 dollar bill.
He was thankful and Thanked and said God Bless to them all. I know the money he makes he puts away in his pocket when they get enough they spend a night in a hotel. Its been really cold out here. Right now he is still looking for a job he said he would even take a paper route so three days ago he applied I have not seen them since because I have the flu so I have been staying in latley. But my husband and I know: They don’t drink, they’re not drug attacks, just two people and a pup really caught in a rock and a hard place. My husband and him were talking he said he will not allow his wife to beg or sit outside because it’s his job to provide for her. Most of the time he is there and his wife is usually in the library looking in local papers for cash jobs (because they can’t cash a cheque with out I.D(back to the circle)or she is down at the river fly fishing catching trout they cook over a fire for supper. I have spent time with them under the bridge by the river watched her cook the fish while he ran up to Kentucky fried chicken to get tap water to boil they made wamr water drinks just plain warm water there are some other people under that bridge who are homeless as well. Everytime we see him or her we always give him two drinks or two sandwhiches from the grocery delhi. and we had them over for Easter supper. I really am glad the warm weather should be here soon and everynight I think about them while I am lying in my comfortable warm bed they ae under a bridge by a river or hopefully in a hotel for a night. I pray every night they get lucky and find jobs to get back on their feet. we would let them stay at ur house if we had the room but we have 6 children.


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