In July 2011, I was in Seattle for the second time in my life. The first time was a flyout for the job I ended up taking and it was very much a chaperoned type of thing. Arrive at the airport, be whisked away by cab to the hotel, be shuttled by buses to various buildings for meetings with various teams of software engineers. A little downtime spent hitting the touristy parts, and then back to the airport. It was like I was hardly in Seattle at all.
The second time I was in the city on my own looking for apartments. My plan was to take the subway from the airport to downtown, hop on the #10 bus, and arrive at my friend's place a disheveled, tired mess with a backpack filled with all the things I needed to pass out on his floor. I got out of the subway and found that the bus stop for the 10 was right nearby.
Nearly immediately an Asian man in a green jacket spoke to me. In slightly affected speech, he explained to me that he was a homeless man who lived up in Ballard and all his supplies had gotten stolen. Could I help him out?
I politely said no, saying that I only had fare for the bus I needed to take. He accepted this graciously and walked off. I'm honestly not sure if I had the money to help him or not.
In any case, what I consider to me my first real interaction in Seattle was with a homeless man.
The homeless in Seattle strike me as very different from homeless people I've encountered in the past. They're bolder, often wanting to explain the circumstances for their misfortune. I feel like the homeless I encountered around Boston were more often of the 'sadly shaking a cup' variety, but then again, I spent a lot of time in the suburbs.
(One time I read a blog by a voluntarily homeless man who stated that immediate suburbs of a major city are paradise for the homeless. There's usually decent public transportation infrastructure, access to universities for computers and free food, and most importantly plenty of places to pitch a tent and hide. Yet he noticed that most homeless lived in cities. He suspected the reason for this was access to drugs.)
I have a lot of trouble with these bold homeless, because if someone attempts to talk to me I feel like a dick completely ignoring them. So my modus operandi is to patiently listen as they get to the pitch that they need money, and then say I don't have any. The vast majority of the time, that's a total lie. Invariable I feel like I'm some shitty dude.
I have significant internal debate about what kind of person that makes me. Am I really helping these people if I give them money? Maybe it buys them a day of food or shelter. Maybe it gets spent on drugs. I have no idea. Either way am I really effecting any sort of meaningful change? But it's not like I need to hold on to every dollar that I have in order to get by. But at the same time where do obligations to society begin? In my mind, I don't have a good reason to give them money or not to give them money.
But I'm not going to go outright and say that I have money, but I'm not giving it to them. Even though that's exactly what I'm doing. I'm not proud of this, but it's the cleanest way I know of to extricate myself from what I've turned into a complex situation.
One time I relented and gave a woman a spare quarter that was noisily clinking around in my pocket. She promptly asked me if I had any more. This did not resonate well with me. Same deal when I saw the guy ostensibly from Ballard hanging around the same place downtown giving the same spiel. Same with the woman who's always asking for exactly two dollars. I know there's probably at least mild mental illness at play in all these cases, but it's still frustrating and disconcerting.
Fortunately, sometimes there are no difficult ethical issues involved.
I was walking home the other night from work at about 10. I was walking down and saw two disheveled looking guys sitting on a stoop by a medical building. As I got closer, I recognized them as homeless guys I regularly see around the neighborhood and on the bus.
I was nearly past them, one of them called out, slurring his speech pretty heavily. "Can I ask you a favor?" In spite of myself, I turned around asked what was up.
Getting the words out was a real problem for this gentleman. Slowly, he was able to say that he knew I was a good guy, but what he wanted still wasn't clear. There was no clear pitch, though it sounded like he wanted something; "I gotta get home", I told him and started walking away.
Finally he got it out "CAN YOU GIVE ME A FOOT MASSAGE", he yelled.
I couldn't help myself, before I could even think, I burst out laughing and called back to him "no thanks!", my evening officially made.
Sometimes, but only sometimes, things aren't complicated and it's not all about money.