Linda Spaet guest opinion: Haunted by those in need
October 4, 2011
I am haunted by his look, so determined and yet so beaten down. I am haunted by the cardboard sign he held for passersby to see: “Need work. Supporting family of four.” And I am haunted by the fact that we drove by, doing nothing to help this man.
It’s been several days since I saw him. We were leaving Wheat Ridge, having done errands on our way home from the airport. We’re accustomed to seeing homeless in Denver with cardboard signs, but this gentleman seemed different. He was stoic in his posture, in his statement of need.
I remember thinking that I wished I had a job for him, one close by that would help his family. It wasn’t until we got home to Granby that I realized we had been so close to the supermarket: We could have turned around and bought a gift card for him, food for his family.
I’ve read stories about the Great Depression, how housewives served plates of food to beggars as they made their way through small towns and city alleys. I romanticize these times in my mind. And yet here we are. In our own depression. No one wants to call it by this name, but what else is it when a huge part of the population is begging for food and rent money? The number of children living in poverty today is greater than 20 percent.
I don’t know how to handle these needs. I can write a check to the church food bank, but I don’t know how to handle the moment when a stranger stares out, holding his cardboard sign, asking for work. It’s a new and different time when a family man is so desperate he goes to an outdoor mall with a sign.
It’s a time to ask questions: How do I help the homeless or the nearly homeless? How do we serve those in need?
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A few years ago my husband and I saw a similar situation, a man on the highway with a sign asking for bus fare. We didn’t think we should give him money, but we were on our way to the diner for Saturday morning breakfast and thought that was one thing we could give him: a decent breakfast. My husband asked him to go into the diner with us and seated him at the counter. We told him to order whatever he wanted and we would pick up the tab.
Later that week I told a small group of my students about the event, hoping to share the lesson with them and no doubt feeling a little proud of our action. Then one of the boys asked, “Mrs. Spaet, why didn’t you ask the man to sit with you and eat together.”
I will not forget that lesson.
What will I do the next time I see a man asking for help? This is the question we must ask in these times. Not only what will our governement do, but what will we do? The answer may not be simple, but sometimes it may be as simple as turning around in a parking lot to buy a gift card for groceries. I missed an opportunity and it haunts me tonight.