To the woman begging in Target,
I’m sorry for my downward glance, my mumbled “I’m sorry” when you asked me if I could help. At first, I thought you had mistaken me for a staff person even though I lacked the tell-tale red uniform. But when you showed me the hand-written index card saying, “Please help my family…” I immediately understood.
I’m sorry that you’re in a bad situation. Maybe your story is all true and things really are that awful. But even if you aren’t homeless or you don’t have starving children, it doesn’t really matter. No one panhandles for fun and profit. I believe that you have to be desperate to ask people on the street – or in a store – for money. Clearly, your current situation is bad and that’s enough to earn my sympathy.
I’m sorry that I didn’t help you. I very rarely give money to panhandlers. But I would have been willing to buy you food or something else useful, like socks, diapers or toothpaste. You actually asked in the ideal place; Target is chock-full of necessities, far more than a street corner. Unfortunately, you caught me in a moment of sheer panic. My three-month-old was crying, my three-year-old was wandering, and I just wanted to find a changing pad as soon as possible to replace the one my sleep-addled brain left in a bathroom two weeks ago. It took a surprising amount of effort to get any words at all out instead of just opening and closing my mouth wordlessly.
I’m sorry my country has failed you. Based on the “index card method” of begging, I’m guessing English is your second language and you’re an immigrant. You came to America hoping for better circumstances than you left, whether that meant safer, more stable, or more economically prosperous ones. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother came over from Poland almost 100 years ago for many of the same reasons. While the United States has changed greatly since then, the words on the Statue of Liberty haven’t: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Clearly, you haven’t found that refuge.
I’m sorry my country has failed at least some of the people who hate you. There are so many people who want to exile you again, forgetting their own roots as newcomers. While racism and xenophobia are never acceptable, many of these people’s fears originate from justified economic anxiety. Instead of addressing the real problems, politicians in both the U.S. and U.K. feed this fear with lies about immigrants “stealing jobs,” committing criminal acts, and mooching off social services. Instead of finding ways to expand the pie, they’re encouraging us to fight over scraps of the crust.
I hope that you found someone more able to help than I was at the time. I hope you get connected to organizations that provide food and other services. I hope that we can fix our broken system to help you and all of the other people in our country that are scrabbling to get by.
You deserve better than to beg in a Target on a sunny Saturday afternoon.