The panhandler at our freeway exit was as much a fixture as the billboard sitting in stalwart silence there. The actual person varied daily, but we could always count on someone camping out at the stoplight. I saw this from the very beginning of our life in North Minneapolis, and I wondered when my girls would notice. Observing their reactions was a study in social awareness, and it was around 2006 when my two oldest engaged in dialogue about it for the first time. They were most aware when their reading skills were more refined; they could finally decipher the homeless people’s signs for themselves.
I had read the statistics about panhandlers in the city. On a good day, one could garner between fifteen and thirty dollars an hour. And then there was the story of a guy who made over two-hundred dollars in four hours on a Black Friday. While I was moved by the issue of homelessness, I read the ones at the exits weren’t the true homeless in the city. Those folks were hidden away elsewhere.
Husband and I began to recognize faces and “shift” changes at our exit. We also observed a swapping of props. A homeless person would wear a medical boot, and then hours later, he’d be without it, and we’d see his buddy wearing it. The same was true of a wheelchair that changed hands. We also remembered the man whose sign said, “Need money for food” on one side and “Need money for beer” on the other. I had become jaded by the exit’s change in actors.
Our girls’ hearts softened, though, when they noticed the cardboard signs, and I wasn’t about to inform them otherwise. Life is its own teacher sometimes.
“Could we give Homeless Dave our house?” our seven year old said. “He doesn’t have one.”
“Homeless Dave?” I said. “Why do you think his name is Dave?”
“It says it on his sign,” her younger sister chimed in.
I looked over, hoping to not make eye contact with the man. His sign read: “Homeless D.A.V. Please help. God bless.”
“Girls, D.A.V. means ‘Disabled American Veteran’,” I said.
But it didn’t matter. The man was Homeless Dave to them. We talked about veterans. They didn’t think Homeless Dave looked disabled.
“Sometimes we can see how people are disabled,” I said. “But sometimes they’re hurt on the inside.”
The girls nodded, their eyes wide.
“Can we give him all our money?” my five year old said one day as we sat at a red light.
“Then how would we live?” I said.
“We could get more.”
The girls started to notice facial expressions more than signs.
“She looks hot and thirsty,” my oldest said. “And sad.”
“What could we do to help?” I said. “Something different from giving away our house or all our money.”
“We could give them something to drink—and something to eat.”
I smiled. “Sounds perfect.”
Thus began the Homeless Bags. We went to the grocery store and loaded up on bottles of water, granola bars, trail mixes, jerky sticks. At home, we made an assembly line, and two of the neighbor kids helped. We prepared thirty bags that first time, and I hauled them out to the car.
The girls would sometimes fight over who got to hand the Homeless Bags through the window at the exit. They learned to take turns. Their eyes were opened to panhandlers all around the city too, so we enjoyed frequent opportunities handing bags of treats through the window.
“And if we find ourselves in a blizzard, we can eat these bags ourselves,” I joked one day.
“They’re not for us, Mom,” my five year old said.
My attitude about the panhandlers changed. It didn’t matter what their true situations were. We would take them at their word and not assess their needs—from outside appearances—as legitimate or not. Even someone with suspect intentions needs a snack and a bottle of water.
Anyone who rode in our vehicle with us got a chance to hand a bag out the window. The neighbor girls got their chances. So did Grandma. And lots of the girls’ cousins. On a hot summer day, one of our nieces got the pleasure of handing a bag to a woman who startled us by screaming in delight. One winter, the girls thought we should give out something warm too, so we picked up a bunch of two-dollar fleece blankets from IKEA to accompany the snacks.
We carried on with our Homeless Bags project for years. But the girls grew, and the effort waned. It had been their thing from the beginning, and Husband and I let it stay that way. If they mentioned it, I got more ingredients for the bags, and we kept going.
If the outset was a study in social awareness, so was the dwindling end. Seven years later, the girls’ comments had evolved.
“If he doesn’t have money for food, how can he afford cigarettes?” “That guy has Beats! They’re expensive. Wonder where he got the two-hundred dollars.” “Why do they leave their trash out there?”
My heart clenched. My girls were seeing the world in a different way. Their naiveté had vanished, and I was wistful. The Homeless Bags trickled off to nothing.
After two years of no Homeless Bags, though, we spied a panhandler’s sign one day at the exit. “Total Despair,” it said. I frowned. In the rear-view mirror, I caught my youngest girl’s expression. She had seen the sign too—and frowned. Was the man truly in total despair? What was going through my girl’s mind?
The light turned green, and I pressed on the accelerator. No one said a word. I wondered about the man and about Homeless Dave whom we’d developed a fondness for over many years. Did my girls think about these people anymore? Or had our exit inhabitants grown unimportant to them?
“We could probably do the Homeless Bags again,” my littlest girl said, breaking the silence.