A Holiday Giving Experiment

Downtown Crossing

Every morning on my way to work, I walk through Downtown Crossing toward South Station, and every morning, I encounter a significant number of homeless men and women who have spent the night outside.  It’s heartbreaking.

As the Financial District is waking, set to get busy with another work day, so to are these men and women, set to struggle through a tough day ahead.  When I think of the challenges that I’ll encounter at work, or that I’ll encounter on any given day, knowing what they must live through puts everything (very quickly) into proper perspective.  It certainly makes you thankful for a calendar full of meetings and tight client deadlines.

That said, while I recognize their struggles and it pains me to see that such poverty is so prevalent in Boston, I’ll admit, I’ve never been particularly generous, in-person, to the homeless men and women that I encounter.  While I occasionally support organizations that provide services to the poor and homeless, such as food banks and soup kitchens, I rarely give money directly to the men and women themselves.  I don’t have any particularly strong reasoning as to why I don’t leave money, it isn’t that I’m against the practice, or think that it’s a ‘handout’ that will just be wasted on alcohol, cigarettes, or worse – drugs (though I must admit that thought does cross my mind at times).  In fact, my education in economics leads me to feel that giving money directly to the homeless is the most efficient way to help them, avoiding the middleman and enabling them to maximize their utility however they see fit, even if I might disagree with how it is ultimately spent.

Testing Assumptions

Recently, I’ve been making a conscious effort to test my deeply ingrained habits, behaviors and assumptions.  During this holiday season, I decided to test my habit of not giving directly to the homeless.

Every morning, I walk past the same woman, and every morning, she greets everyone who passes by.  She doesn’t ask for money, she just offers a simple ‘Good Morning’ and keeps an empty cup in her hand.  I return her pleasantry with a quick ‘Good Morning’ as well, but quickly pass by on my walk to work.

Last week, instead of simply passing by, I gave her a holiday greeting card that contained a Prepaid Visa Gift Card, a card that enables you to not only check the balance online, but also the transaction history.  In the card, I wished her ‘Happy Holidays’ and told her to use the gift however she wanted, spending it on whatever would make her day a bit easier or more enjoyable.

Over the past week, I’ve checked the balance of the card and have been pleased to find that she’s used all but $4.92, spending $13.37 at a CVS and $21.71 at a Tedeschi Food Shop.  I have no idea what exactly she spent the money on, but I do know that, whatever it was, she chose it, and in so doing, hopefully chose items that were exactly what she needed and wanted at the time.

While this experiment didn’t confirm or deny any stereotypes, or ‘prove’ anything necessarily, as she could very well have ‘wasted’ the gift, spending the money on junk food or cigarettes (alcohol isn’t available at either of the places she visited), but with holidays just recently behind us, I’m in an optimistic mood.  Even if that is how she chose to spend the money, that’s fine by me.  She has to deal with a lot just to get by everyday, so she’s in the best position to know what she needs and what makes her happy.

Overall, the whole ‘experiment’ has just made me more curious about the ‘homeless problem.’  In particular, how did she end up in her position?  Why does she choose to stay in the same location everyday?  What does she do at the end of the day?  Why was one of the gift card transactions made in Revere, MA when she spends (to my knowledge) all od her weekdays in Downtown Boston?

In 2013, to (hopefully) answer some of my questions concerning the ‘homeless problem’ in Boston, I plan to engage with the homeless community through volunteer work, to hear their stories, to get beyond the superficial stereotypes (hopefully disproving them) and to hopefully further test my assumptions.

If nothing else, this holiday ‘giving experiment’ has made me more conscious of how fortunate I am, reminded me of the importance of being mindful of that fact every day and encouraging me, as a result, to live my life in a more charitable way.

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