Lois M. Collins: Who are the 'worthy poor?' It's not for me to judge

Published: Thursday, Nov. 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

A friend who works with Utah's homeless youth population tells me I'm a maddening creature because of how I make my decisions about giving.

The theory is you should only give money to established charities who can leverage it to provide whatever kind of help is needed to more individuals who need it.

I agree, totally, that it's important to support established charities that have a proven track record for providing effective direct service.

But my personal mantra, refined and tested over my five-plus decades, is this: It's my money and I will give it to whomever I please. That might or might not include someone who's holding a "will work for food" sign or a "need help, I'm stranded" sign. And it can vary depending on my mood or circumstance.

I got into a rather heated discussion about this recently with a very nice friend who is generous and kind and deeply concerned about the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised.

He told me that I am encouraging the creeps who pretend to be needy and who make a very nice living by begging on the sides of off-ramps and busy pedestrian thoroughfares.

I'll admit, there's probably some truth to that. And I'm no more enamored of the folks who take advantage than he is. But what, really, does it cost me to be sure? A buck or two.

I try not to put myself in a precarious position, but I lean toward getting involved.

A year ago, I spotted a young man standing on the off-ramp of 1300 South and I-15 holding a sign and I gave him a little money. He was there the next day and the next through most of the summer. I suspect most only gave to him once, because it was soon apparent that his broken car either required a extraordinary amount of work — or he'd found a location from which to cash in on drive-by sympathy.

Sometimes I ask what's wrong with the broken-down auto or where the person's heading and try to help in a more targeted way. My husband and I have, over the years, taken people to get a part at a local parts store and paid for it; or picked one up and dropped it off; or hit up a few friends to help pay for a bus ticket and purchased that directly for the person in need. We've also simply walked on past, trusting our instincts about whether we should be giving.

One fellow was standing with his child in his arms beside a car that had broken down. We ended up helping him for about three hours, eventually towing his car ourselves and dropping him off where family could finish the task of getting his situation under control.

We could have assumed he was running a scam, but we'd have left a very nice man at the side of the road with his baby. I don't feel good about that. And, frankly, I've needed help myself a time or two.

Gene wasn't running a scam. And his problem was not one that a charitable program is well suited to handle.

Years ago, Pamela Atkinson taught me that many of the people who don't use homeless shelters avoid them for a very basic reason: They have dogs that wouldn't be allowed inside. And those dogs, quite honestly, may be their only true friends.

That makes sense to me and I admire the loyalty.

It also reminds me that the well-woven safety net doesn't cover every situation or individual.

So I set aside the concept of the "worthy" poor — Who really knows enough to judge another's life? — and trust my heart and my instincts.

If I'm taken, I'm still richer for having tried.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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