The Cost of Helping Strangers

Do you stop to render aid for strangers on the freeway with flat tires? Do you pick up hitchhikers? Do you give money to the people standing with signs as you get off the highway? Do you give money to homeless people?

Every once in a while I see a car pulled over on the freeway and choose to stop and help. I am very picky and Mr. A doesn’t like to hear about it at all, since unfortunately it could be dangerous. Typically I stop for women, especially when they are obviously pregnant and it’s the middle of the summer. I’ve given two pregnant women rides to a nearby store, while letting them cool off in my vehicle and use my cell phone. More recently I helped an elderly woman who had a flat tire, and no phone. She put in a call to her towing insurance company.

I’ve picked up a couple of hitchhikers. Usually women with children, carrying bags and bags of groceries during the summer. One time the young woman was sitting at the bus stop. I remember those days, both from my childhood and when my children were young and we didn’t have a car. One time my son and I stopped to give a man a ride whose car had broken down about 20 miles from the nearest store.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law like to help out homeless people by buying them a meal from McDonald’s or Burger King and giving the food to them. They will often do this when they find a homeless man passed out in a park. They’ll buy him a meal, then leave the bag nearby so when he wakes up he’ll find it.

I don’t give money to the folks hanging out on the freeway off/on ramps. It’s especially unnerving when they walk up and start washing your windshield without your permission. Expecting that you will feel obligated to give them a “tip” for services rendered.

I have seen homeless people occasionally over the past few years in the neighborhood where I work. That’s changed lately… about a year ago, a married couple began working at my place of employment. More than one time, the wife shared with me that they like to give money to the homeless people they see at the corner convenience store. The owner tried to discourage this behavior, explaining that these people were just coming into the store and buying alcohol, but the wife told me it was not her concern once she gave the money away.

Unfortunately, word seems to have traveled… we are now contending with droves of homeless people. They are sleeping at the front and back doors of the building, as well as along the hallway that runs the length of the building. I would say at least a dozen people are hanging around every morning when I get to work. At least it’s daylight when I arrive. In a couple of months, it will be dark. Yikes!

Yesterday, as I opened one of the main doors to look out at the parking lot to see if anyone else was at work yet, I startled a woman just waking up from sleeping at the back door with her grocery basket full of all her worldly possessions. About an hour later, another person was there, standing at the glass door, just staring at me as if imploring me to give him a handout. Thankfully we keep that door locked at all times. This couple mentioned to me today that they didn’t feel safe entering the building early this morning because of all the homeless people. I felt aggravated, and had to bite my tongue to keep from saying to them it wasn’t like this until they started giving money to these people.

It’s awfully coincidental that they’ve been giving money to the homeless folks and now we’re dealing with an abundance of these poor people.

I guess I’m just rambling and I ask myself what does this have to do with personal finance? Well, the wife told me they give as much as five dollars away every day to homeless people. They also give money to a homeless guy that hangs out near a fast food restaurant where they get coffee.

I suspect that they might have been homeless themselves at some point in their life, and feel empathy for these people. However, I think their money could be better spent by donating directly to a homeless shelter, or maybe like my MIL and SIL, buy food and give to the homeless people instead of giving them money. Perhaps that would be less attractive, than if money is being handed out.

What do you think?


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2 thoughts on “The Cost of Helping Strangers

  1. My dad helps just about anyone he sees if they have car trouble. He does it because he hopes that someone would help me, my mom or my sister if we were ever stranded.

    I used to frequently walk down a street known for its panhandlers. As a broke college student, I rarely had money to offer them. Once, I offered a granola bar to a man who asked for money.

    “No thanks, I already ate,” he told me. Oh. I hadn’t, so I’m glad I kept the snack.

    I don’t like to give money to people who seem like panhandling is their career. Instead, I’d rather give money to local organizations that can help people in tough situations.


  2. It’s a hard debate. In Las Vegas we get a lot of people out in the heat who obviously have no place to go, otherwise they wouldn’t be standing in 110 degrees. I usually try and keep bottled water and/or granola bars for people in need. If someone asks for money I tell them I will buy them food if they’re hungry. I’ve found an overwhelming majority truly just want something to eat. I’ve only had one person turn down food.

    I got into an argument once with a woman who told me that if I gave a person something to eat then more of “those people” would just “come in droves.” Her real problem turned out to be a derogatory attitude to those down on their luck (not the case here :-)).

    Regardless of whether you give to an individual or an assistance organization, I think it’s important to remember that in today’s age of foreclosures and financial uncertainty, many people are one paycheck away from homelessness. I think it’s good “karma” to help others.

    Maybe communicating with the giving couple and talking to them about volunteering their time at a local organization instead of giving money all the time. Also picking up a few pamphlets about local assistance organizations for the people around you in need. Not everyone will be grateful, but if just one person can benefit from your story or your effort, maybe they can help someone else….etc.


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