It was after dark on the streets of Ann Arbor. The street lights had been on for over an hour as they cast their fluorescent glow on the sidewalks. I was supposed to be up quite early the next morning, so I was in a bit of a hurry while I pedaled my bike down the half-empty streets. There were a few people walking down the sidewalks, but overall the city was not very alive.
As I rode down Liberty, I passed by an older man asking a young couple for directions. I heard, “Do you know how to get to…” but I didn’t catch the name of the place he was looking for. I slowed down just enough to hear the young man say that he didn’t know where it was. I kept riding for a few seconds while I debated whether I should turn around and help the guy. He was dressed in the dirty clothes of a panhandler, and his shoulders showed a slight shrug of tiredness or something else.
I eventually chose to turn around, deciding to at least see what his question was. I rode up to him, and asked him what he was looking for. He said that he had four young children who were up at the hotel on Huron, and they needed food. He wanted to get to St. Francis Church to maybe get some help from them.
He was sweating profusely though the ambient temperature was around 65 degrees. His hands were shaking and as he was talking, he had started to ‘rest’ against a wall nearby in a half-slump. I told him St. Thomas Church was closer, and he said that he couldn’t go to a Catholic church. I then “broke the news” to him that St. Francis was a Catholic church. He started to argue with me, but his words trailed off. Then he said that maybe I was right, and he went into telling me all kinds of details about the hotel and his little girls, and how he only wanted to get them something to eat. Then he asked for some cash.
In spite of my feeling that I was being lied to, I told him that I would walk with him to Jimmy John’s nearby and buy subs for him and his children because I had no cash (but I could use a credit card). He just stared at me for a moment, but then said that he needed money to buy milk for the kids as well. I told him that I would buy them some large sodas. He refused my offer, but thanked me, saying that I was a “good person.” He then walked away quickly before I could reply.
I watched him walk for a while longer, and thought a bit to myself about the dangers of what I did, as well as what was behind my actions. It would have been simple to pass him by and let him keep working the streets, trying to find a friendly soul who would give him some green hard cash. The result was the same, whether I had stopped or not. The gentleman would still be wandering the streets telling his story to any passerby. So, what’s the difference?
I guess one thing I gained is that I now know for sure that I could not help him in the state he was in (given my limited experience and his current outlook on life), instead of wondering later if I could have helped.
As I mentioned before, I feel that people who need help should get it, and I hope that those who are lying eventually get honest so they can get the help they need, not just what they want. Another thing that bothers me in trying to help people who need it is that it is very easy for me to get taken advantage of. What would I have done if that man had a gun or had an accomplice hiding out nearby to attack me? Am I willing to risk my life to help someone who may be trapped in a world of their making, a world filled with some real horrific actions?
I’ve often helped people on the side of the road who have said that they didn’t think anyone stopped anymore and they were extremely grateful for the help I provided. I’ve also met a lot of people like the gentleman above where their minds are twisted (in my opinion) to the point of not being able to ask for any real help. Alas, I don’t know if I could ever tell just by looking at a person whether they were “deserving” of help and trustworthy.
In the meantime, I think I will continue this little experiment of helping people when I can in the ways that I feel comfortable and just see where it leads. I wonder what the results will bring…