Thursday, December 17, 2009

"I have four dollars."

I have been avoiding writing this blog for several days now. I'm not sure why, but I think it hits a nerve in me that makes me uncomfortable with my own position, and so I avoid it.

The other day, I had just parked at Target. As I turned away from my car, a man approached me, speaking as he walked. He looked a little worn, but not necessarily homeless. He said that he and his wife had come from Madras, had car trouble, and were now stuck in Portland. I struggled to follow his story as it grew, details being added as he continued. His wife's mother was on her way to Portland, he said. They had a cat with them. They had tried all the shelters, and they were full (I knew this was true--this was the deepest day of last week's cold snap). His wife was pregnant.

He continued to talk, said he had asked for help from the police, who had given him a copy of the Rose City Resource. Eventually, he said that his wife was at the Portland Hostel (he had a brochure in his hand) but that they needed money to pay for the room. I knew that the question was coming, and I knew I had some singles in my purse, and I knew I couldn't lie to him.

"I have four dollars," I said.

"Well, that'll make a big difference," he said. I handed him the money, he told me to have a blessed day, and walked on through the parking lot. Other people made a wide path away from him when he made eye contact. I saw a friend shortly after, and she had a lot of questions. "Why did they bring a cat? How do you know he actually went to the hostel?" I only had one answer for her.

"I don't know," I said, "but I don't think it's my job to know."

Here's what I do know: I could have said "Look, buddy, things are tough all over. I don't have a job right now, and it's just not happening," and few people would have blamed me. I also know that things are true. I rarely have cash on me--I often get asked for money, and have to say honestly I can't help someone. And that four dollars, by God's grace, was not standing between me and having heat or lights in my home. It was not my only chance to eat for the day, and it was not making any difference in me having a roof over my head for the night. The truth is that those four dollars would have almost certainly gone toward a coffee, and little else. And I am not called to be anyone's interrogator.

It's possible that my four dollars bought him a bottle, bought him drugs. It's possible. It's also possible that he returned to the Portland Hostel that night with a handful of one dollar bills, and that he and his family had a place to stay for the evening. I hope that was the outcome, but I will probably never know.

Was it a waste on my part? I don't think so. Hopefully, if nothing else, I and some other people listened to his story rather than avoid him, and that he experienced some small kindnesses in the course of the cold day.