Recently, I was at the 24th Street BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) buying a ticket to Walnut Creek. A middle-aged woman came up to me at the machine and tried to get my attention several times. I did not register what she was saying to me because I was focusing on buying my ticket, and I was also trying to ignore someone who I thought was trying to hit me up for money. She eventually stood closer to me and just stared at me as I finished my transaction. I told her, "staring at me is not going to change the fact that I have no money to give you." She then said, "I just need help. I have the money." It was at that point that I realized she came from a different country and didn't understand how to work the machine. As you can imagine, I felt a deep sense of shame. At that moment she got a little upset with me, and I deserved it. She went on for a while in broken English asking me over and over again why I thought she was a vagrant. I calmed her down, helped her buy her ticket, and showed her the train she needed to board. It wasn't so much a "good deed" as the least I could do considering my previous behavior.
I spent my commute on the train that day trying to figure out why I was so callous towards her. It is true that I get hit up a lot in San Francisco by people looking for money or change. Actually, I also get hit up by people who are walking down the street and offering drugs to everyone that goes by. When someone approaches me, my reaction is to not make eye contact and move quickly down the street.
Why do I behave in this way? Fear! Yep, Fear! One of the things I don't want to do is open my wallet on the street and show someone my cash. I also don't want to be targeted as a person who has cash on them and is willing to give it out. In addition, I don't want to get too close to some of the people who approach me on the street for safety reasons. For example, there was a recent case of a guy who was stabbing people on the MUNI bus system.
What is the solution? I used to carry granola bars on me and give those out when I was approached, and I may go back to doing that. Just because I don't want to be targeted as a person with cash on me doesn't mean I can't have some food that I give out. Many people, me included, will take comfort in the fact that people without choices can get a hot meal and maybe a place to stay at a homeless shelter. But how many of us, me included, actually write a check or donate to these shelters on a regular basis?
This happened about a week ago, and it still bothers me a little. Partly because I didn't initially listen to a person who needed help, and partly because of how callous I have become towards homeless individuals. I think it was a wake up call for me. Now, do I do something with it or just wait for the guilt to subside? Do I do something or just go back to my previous behavior and justify it with fear?