It was a quiet Saturday afternoon. As I started walking, I could see that our street was empty and silent as I headed for the little store a few blocks away. However, coming up to the corner, I noticed a man standing there.
He was wearing a baggy sweater and old khaki pants. He hesitated, and then approached me. I noticed that he had a large mole right in the center of his forehead just above his nose. I kept staring at the mole as he began to speak.
He said to me in Spanish, “I have no money for food, Sir. Could you give me a little something so I can eat?”
Especially in my neighborhood, I usually say that I have no money or that I cannot help. I do so because otherwise I will see the same person asking me for assistance over and over. This time, though, I automatically reached in my pocket and gave him the one coin I had— five soles— approximately $1.50.
It was like a reflex action, an impulse, and I knew as soon as I did it, that it was a mistake. This was affirmed later in the afternoon when the same man knocked on our door asking for me. Fortunately, I was out, and I never heard from him again.
What happened is a good example of why I don’t like to give out money or anything else in my neighborhood. Otherwise I would wind up with clients who are continually asking for help. I prefer to make my contributions more indirectly and discretely.
Recently I asked my students at the University how they respond to requests for money on the street. I was interested to learn that virtually everyone at one time or another had succumbed to a plea for money. Most said that they were reluctant to respond to such requests because they felt that it really didn’t help much, but occasionally gave on impulse just as I had.
In Lima, if you travel by car, you are frequently subjected to requests for a donation from young women carrying babies or street performers who entertain you while waiting for the change of the traffic light. In addition, when I return from my classes at the University, late at night, I often see young children hustling money by juggling or giving away candies and asking for a coin. It is hard to resist responding to their pleas.
My thoughts about this matter, however, were jolted by the posting of big signs in Spanish and English in the most popular tourist location in Miraflores, a classy suburb of Lima.
The signs said, “Do not give alms. It is of no use. In fact, it may cause harm.”
It went on to explain that giving money to women carrying babies or kids with candies encourages the abuse of children because they are being used by adults to make money.
Therefore I have realized that to give or not to give is NOT the question.
The question is how can I give so that it really helps?
To do that, it is necessary to resist the impulse of giving in response to pleas on the streets. Instead, I have learned that I must make sure that I DO give to one of the many worthy organizations that are helping those in need, and particularly for the children.
It all sounds so logical. And yet, what will happen the next time that I see someone on the street who touches my heart?
You can listen to Larry reading his stories at www.soundcloud.com/larryoflima.