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.

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

11 replies on “Opinion: The girl on the street — Think about it”

  1. I had a tutor at Cal who told me: Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

  2. That’s what I was thinking too. Because the obvious perspective would have been to focus on the take away. She learned to carry gift cards and was cognizant of her lack of compassionate reaction.

  3. This is a shakedown. You asked for help: she said yes; she asked for help, you said no. It should have ended there.

  4. It is poisonous to act entitled to “help,” especially in the form of money, because you helped someone. If such conduct were more common, I’d be leery about accepting help from anyone I did not know.

    When compassion is weaponized as a tool for panhandling, it stops being compassion, and starts being guilt. And that drives out real compassion. Sustainable bonds of empathy can not be built on guilt or pity.

    As for carrying gift cards for food, that is substantially worse than just giving people money. If you are going to help someone, give them the dignity of money. Let them bear the responsibility of spending it on drugs or alcohol, as bad a choice as that probably is, and let them feel that. To make the decision for them by giving them something constrained into virtue is to treat them like a child, like someone who isn’t really worthy.

    I’ve been poor, even homeless for a brief period. And I’ve received such charity as gift cards. And it sucks. The gesture feels worthy of appreciation, but the condescension stings. Like it or not, food is not actually what poor street folks need (not saying no one is ever hungry, but caloric deficiency is not the main problem). They need money, whether for things like clothing, transit, or communication, or, god forbid, for a pack of cigarettes to ease their minds. If you don’t respect someone enough to understand that their material wants and needs are as diverse and textured as your own, you have no business affecting compassion for them.

  5. What reason do you have to believe this is fictionalized? Does the author have a habit of concocting stories, as far as you know?

  6. Yes. It wouldn’t hurt anything to give her a little money. I think the whole thing of not giving money because it might be spent on drugs or alcohol is not okay. I don’t always give money when asked, but I always smile and sometimes ask how someone is today, and I often give a little money.

  7. These people? You have no idea what her circumstances were and she was asked by a stranger to help and she did. Shame on you.

  8. I am sorry but I think you should have helped her a little bit. Certainly not just dismissed her. You asked for her help, she did not need to help you but she did. An offer to take her to the Oakland shelter would have been wonderful, but also a few bucks so she could take public transportation would have been great. Homeless women are preyed upon a lot and for a young girl it could be especially dangerous. Good for you for being prepared for next time. OH and I do not usually hand out money on the street either, but if I asked someone for some help, I would reciprocate.

  9. “Hey, you, wait. I helped you. Now help me. I need money.” Um, no, that’s not the way it works honey. Learn to give without asking or EXPECTING anything in return, then you will have grown up. Just like all these bratty cafe barristas these days who don’t say thanks if you drop your change into their “tip jars” — they expect it! Unbelievable frame of mind that I certainly didn’t grow up with. You’re being way too hard on yourself Karen. You have absolutely ZERO obligation to give a dime to any of these people, and if they cry about your lack of “reciprocity” then that should be a lessoned learned for them (but of course, it won’t be because takers keep on taking and expecting rewards for being good).

  10. I don’t know, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself here. Doing something for someone else, even a stranger, with the expectation of reward or payment isn’t “help” (which sort of implies charity in this context), it’s work.

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