Opinion: The girl on the street — Think about it

A young woman experiencing homelessness in Berkeley helped me and I didn’t help her in return. How could the encounter have gone differently?

Downtown Berkeley. My credit card got stuck in the parking meter payment slot, and, thanks to my freshly manicured nails, I couldn’t retrieve it. I saw a tall, attractive girl passing by and asked if she would help.

“Well,” she said hesitantly. After looking at me for a moment, she carefully wrapped her fingers inside her sweatshirt and started pulling on the credit card.

She muttered something about not wanting to get her fingerprints on the card in case it was stolen. “I’m black and I don’t want to get into trouble.”

I assured her the card was mine and she continued yanking at it. After several tries, she succeeded. Her fingers still draped inside the sweatshirt, she handed the credit card back to me. I thanked her, completed my parking meter transaction, and started walking away.

“Wait a minute, will you?” the girl asked. “My mom kicked me out of the house. They don’t have any room at the shelter up the street. They just gave me the address for another shelter in Oakland.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, um, good luck. I hope you get a spot at the Oakland shelter. Bye.”

“Hey, you, wait. I helped you. Now help me. I need money.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any change.”

Of course, I had money with me, but ever since I was a little girl I was told not to give money to people on the street, that it would only go for drugs or liquor.

The girl kept talking. She said her father should help her, but that he never had been there when she needed him in the past. She repeated the story about her mother and about being turned away from the Berkeley shelter.

She was getting agitated and I was getting more uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated and headed into my exercise studio.

She followed me in.

“Don’t you walk away from me. I helped you and you won’t even stand still and listen to me. Nobody listens to me.”

The girl was now uncomfortably close to me; her voice was getting louder and angrier. She repeated the story about her mother, her complaints about her father, and her need for money. Finally, the gym owner asked her to leave.

As she went through the door, she looked back and said, “I helped you and you won’t help me. That’s not right. You think about it.”

The encounter lasted no more than five minutes. It happened months ago, but I’m still thinking about it.

I moved to the Bay area three years ago. I’m from New York City and have lived in big cities most of my life, but I’ve never seen as many homeless people as here.

As an urban dweller, I’m conditioned to avoid eye contact with people (homeless or other) on the street. I’ve read countless articles about homelessness — causes, conditions and solutions. Like most people, I donate money and volunteer and try to help my community. Yet, most of all, like most people, I feel overwhelmed and sad about this terrible problem with so many people suffering and no easy solutions.

Maybe the girl on the street had a violent mother; a step-father who was sexually abusing her; maybe she was on drugs or mentally ill. Maybe she was just young and foolish and had run away from home after a stupid fight with her mother.

No, I didn’t know why she was homeless, and so, I am left to wonder about her. I’m also left to wonder about my own response that day. Why did I get startled and scared so quickly? Why did I freeze? What could I have done? Why, in that one moment, with that one girl, did my desire to help fail me and more importantly, fail her?

Maybe I should have given her a few dollars. Maybe I should have just stopped and listened. Maybe it would have showed her that, at least for a moment, somebody cared. Maybe a moment is better than nothing.

She was right. She helped me and I didn’t help her. She told me to “think about it.” I still am.

At least now, I carry gift cards to fast-food restaurants and lists of area homeless services to hand out. Maybe next time these small bits of help will be better than nothing.

Karen Galatz is the author of 'Muddling through Middle Age,' a weekly humor blog (http://muddling.me/), and is an award-winning journalist.