Prepared to respond to an emergency.

Cries for Help

Prepared to respond to an emergency.

I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever called 9-1-1. Memory may have a way of playing tricks on me, but I can’t recall another instance. Either way, I won’t forget the incident anytime soon.

I walk to the office of a client to discuss a new project with them. The stretch of unseasonable warmth continues, and the day could not be better. Sun shines, blossoms bloom, and birds sing. Squirrels chase each other through the trees.

I have plenty of time. No hurry. No hurry at all.

Four blocks from my destination, I approach a man with a walker. I wish him good day. But unlike most people I greet on the sidewalk, he doesn’t simply return the greeting and continue on his way.

“Could you call 9-1-1 for me?” he whispers weakly.

Whoa. “What’s wrong?”

He tells me his MS is flaring up and he needs an ambulance. Without hesitating, I make the phone call.

“Hello, I’m on the corner of Greenview and Fargo with a gentleman who requests medical assistance. He says his MS is flaring up.”

“How old do you think he is?”

I ask the man his age.

“Thirty-four,” he replies.

Without thinking, I repeat his answer to the woman on the phone. Though glancing at the man again, he must surely be older than that – maybe in his fifties. Oh well, it’s not a big deal.

The lady on the phone verified our location, gave me instructions not to give the man any food or water, confirmed my phone number in case she needed to call me, and told me someone would be on the way.

I waited with the man.


Fifteen minutes later, as I near the offices for my meeting, I pass a man on crutches. He asks me for a dollar. Without hesitation, I tell him not today and continue on my way.


so glad to be of help
so glad to do the right thing
who is this?
you want a dollar?
i can’t help right now


Why do I help one man and not the other? Why do I give attention and empathy to the first man but not the second?

Was it the urgency of the situation? Calling an ambulance is an immediate need. Giving a dollar is not as urgent. If he got the money later, he would probably be alright. Maybe could get a meal at a shelter. But I didn’t take the time to be sure. I didn’t ask the man what his need was. I just chose to brush him off.

Was it that I didn’t have enough time to respond to the second man? Helping the first man meant I didn’t have much time left before my meeting. But really, how much time does it take to say hello, chat for a bit, pull a dollar out of my wallet, and continue on my way? Not much.

Was it that helping the second man cost me more? Giving up money means surrendering the opportunity to use it in other ways. Although, thanks to the blessings I’ve received, a dollar is not a high cost to me. But giving isn’t the only way to help him. I could ask him his name, say hello and acknowledge his presence.

Was it that the first situation broke my perception of normal? As a human being, I have a tendency to notice what is unusual or out of place. My brain is wired to look for objects and situations that don’t match the patterns in my head. Someone asking me to call an ambulance is not an everyday occurrence. When it happens, I pay attention.

Was it that I felt more responsible for the first man? If he was in genuine need of urgent care, and I refused to help him, then I have no excuse. I was there. I was able to get him the help he needed. To say no would be to directly say his life isn’t worth saving. Excuses are harder to make when the direct consequences of your actions are so visible.

I suspect, as with many questions in life, the answer is a blend of possibilities. It’s not just one reason or another. It’s complicated.


i want to help
i want to make a difference
but my response is
so often
to not help
to not make
a difference
it’s a good thing that i
can change that response

What if I want to change my reaction to the second man? What if I decide that men and women such as he deserve my help, or at the least, my attention? How do I push myself to greater generosity and empathy?

The harsh reality is that I have people asking me for money nearly every time I walk around the city. These men and women often fade into the background of my attention. I push them to the periphery of my mind like the countless advertisements I see. I ignore their pleas for help unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise.

Part of that means calling out what I’m afraid of. I fear opening myself to their suffering. I fear the added responsibility. I fear my actions won’t help or may even make the situation worse. But if I want to act, I have to face my fears.

Part of that means changing my default response. Instead of saying no right away, I can ask the person their name or how they’re doing. I can choose to engage them as a human being. Doing so shifts the dynamic of the conversation and changes the way I feel about offering – or not offering – assistance. I move from guilt to generosity.

Part of that means setting boundaries and acknowledging that I have finite resources. I can’t help everyone. But there’s lots of people that I can – and want to – assist. Saying no to some people gives me the freedom to say yes to others.

Part of that means accepting failure. No matter what I do, I’m bound to make mistakes. Sometimes, my giving will make the situation worse. Sometimes, I’m conned by someone who isn’t in need. Sometimes, I’ll give and the gift won’t be appreciated. Sometimes, I won’t give to someone who really needs my help. But that’s OK.

All I can do is strive to do right in each situation. Sometime’s I’ll mess up, and other times I won’t act when I should. But I’m willing to try. I’m willing to face the complexity.


sometimes in life
events are more more complex
than first glances show

As I sat with the man, waiting for the ambulance, a lady came from across the street and asked him what he was doing. It turned out that he checked in at a nearby health clinic the night before and could have asked for help there. We waited together until the emergency dispatch arrived. Confident the man was in good hands, I wished him well and continued on my way.

So maybe I didn’t need to help him. He had people to look after him nearby. But I didn’t know that beforehand. Sometimes you just have to make a judgment call. And sometimes, it’s complicated.


PHOTO: Prepared to respond to an emergency. Wheaton, IL.

18 thoughts on “Cries for Help”

  1. I think you did the “best for you” thing in both cases. Even if you were Oprah Winfrey and had a million dollars to hand out, you could not stem the tide of poverty. Our first duty is to ourselves—to stay centered, at peace, rested and prepared. Only then can you truly help. How much good are you if you are exhausted, poor, penniless and resentful because you didn’t take care of your needs first? It’s not selfish to have boundaries. It’s actually better for all concerned if you do. Decide how much money you will give to the homeless a week, or a month. Then when it is gone, it is gone. You can make exceptions if you choose, boundaries are flexible you know. But then you won’t have to worry about it. Listen to your heart, not to the “shoulds” of others. You made a difference in the man’s life—not because you called anyone, but because you stopped and listened. He reached out to a stranger, probably something he doesn’t do every day, at least not in that way. And you responded. The other man? He reaches out every day too, but in a different way. We can’t save everyone. If you can’t give money, ask the man’s name. “Hi John. How’re you today? I don’t have an extra dollar today. I do have a stick of gum.” Or, “I do have a mint.” Fill your pockets with those. At only pennies per piece they’re a welcome treat and they convey caring. Try it and see.

  2. Becky, lots of wisdom in that comment. What struck me more about the second man wasn’t that I didn’t give to him, but that I ignored him. I’m fine with not giving money (and as you mention, it’s often not the best way to help), but the fact that I didn’t show respect or stop to learn his name gave me pause.

    I like the mints idea. I’ll add that to my set of default responses.

  3. You’re welcome Joshua. The mints can become a “placekeeper,” or ritual in a relationship. Grandparents often use them as a connection with grandchildren. It is the ritual of connecting, of pausing to exchange a small token of sweetness that matters, not the mint itself. What I’ve found fascinating is that many of the homeless you offer these mints to will refuse them. They want money for drugs or alcohol and will hold out for change, not candy. That’s actually very interesting too—it levels the playing field. Ask them, “Why are you saying ‘No,’ to what I can give?” They know enough to set boundaries for themselves—a start. They know what they want and don’t want. Others will take the offering and pocket it, and use it for barter later. Still others will take it and toss it. I think you’ll learn a lot just by watching and questioning the response to your “gift.” Very telling. Notice how YOU feel when they reject it, pocket it or toss it too. Even though it’s only a mint or piece of gum, giving and receiving are powerful forces in life. The belief that because someone has money, a home etc. and won’t be affected by a homeless person rejecting their offer is an illusion. Very powerful exercise…enjoy! Addicts LOVE sugar…so it’s a very unusual connection you’ll build. One dollar can buy you 50-100 pieces of candy (Dollar Store), so it’ll take you far! Would love to read about your experiences here…

  4. It’s complicated — so true and you broke it down beautifully here. In Chicago, it pained me every time I refused someone money. And I was shamed when I said, with a sad smile, “I’m sorry, I don’t have cash on me,” because so frequently the asker ended up thanking me for my smile.

    For me, there was always the element of fear. What happens if I physically lower my guard and open myself to another person? And this shames me as well.

    I stopped to write to respond to your post, but I read Becky’s comments. I would like to share a counterpoint to her position. I believe when we choose to give, we should either give what is asked for or offer an alternative if we don’t have the means. We all have free choice, and it is not my place to try and “fix” another against their will. I remember a colleague who was very upset when he bought a homeless person a coffee instead of passing over the requested change. The guy refused him. But aren’t all people allowed to have their own tastes? Just because you’re out begging (and even if you’re scamming), you’re still allowed to choose what you consume.

    I will also offer a justification, even though my worldview doesn’t require it. I may not agree with a person’s choice to use money for alcohol or drugs, but I admit there are good reasons to do so. What if someone is so far gone to addiction that withdrawal could kill him or her? This is just an example, because, as I said, it is not up to me. My choice is to give or not to give.

    Whew! That was long. I am very passionate about this subject. 🙂

    Ps. On a pragmatic level, mint stimulates the appetite, so it’s a rather cruel thing to give to a presumably under-nourished person (although I am sure Becky didn’t know that and had no ill intent).

  5. Brigitte, I can tell you’re passionate about the subject. Having been homeless for nearly 18 months, I am too. There were days (2-3 in a row usually) that I went without food and mints, a piece of gum…all of it were welcomed. It’s not cruel at all. You’re not their nutritionist, you’re a stranger offering them respect and a connection. When you’re already hungry a mint doesn’t push you over the edge. The purpose of the mint or the gum is not to feed the person, but to connect with them. To hand a person a mint or a stick of gum requires you stop, look them in the eye and have a conversation: “I don’t have spare change today, but I have a mint. Would you like a mint or a piece of gum?”

    The homeless, particularly those on the street panhandling. want a connection, to be acknowledged. To even assume ANYONE needs our “fixing” them (homeless or not) is arrogant. By engaging in a conversation, or having an exchange about a mint or piece of gum, you begin to see the homeless as people, not beggars. When you hear someone’s story and can accept and relate to them based on that story then you form the most powerful connection you can have—respect. I find it odd that people who have never been homeless assume they will never be homeless, or that if something happens to them they’ll easily be able to get out of the situation by themselves.

    I wish it were that easy. I had job skills, smarts, was being talked about by Tim Russert on CNBC, was a photographer, journalist and award winning writer, 140 IQ, etc. etc. yet as long as people only saw me as “That homeless woman,” that’s how they treated me.

    Your fear is understandable. 15-20% of homeless are mentally ill, sexual offenders, criminals or addicts. Those are usually the 15-20% people see on the street. The other 80-85% are the working homeless, like I was. We live in our cars, hide, hold down full or part-time jobs and work our asses off to get off the street. Your chances of being mugged, stalked, followed or assaulted by giving an “aggressive” panhandler money increase when they know you’re “weak.” Part of asking for money from women by criminal panhandlers, which is some, but not all panhandlers is to “test” your boundaries and size you up to see if you’d be an easy mark. (I was a criminal justice major and police officer before becoming a journalist.) I usually encourage women not to give money to panhandlers who come up to them because it puts them in a vulnerable position because they have to take their eyes off the panhandler to open their wallets etc. If you’re going to give money, give it freely—without the “Now don’t spend it on drugs or booze” nannie/mommie lecture. Keep bills folded in your pocket so you can pull them out without having to sort through them or open a wallet. One smooth move—pull it out and hand it to them, preferably folded so they have to break eye contact with you to look at it.

    What the media rarely reports on, because people rarely report it, are muggings by the homeless. Just because someone is homeless and looks sad and pulls on your pity strings doesn’t mean they are wounded puppies who will respond with gratitude and happy smiles at your smile or dollar bill. Some will become violent, some will stalk or follow you to your workplace or make it a point to approach you every chance they get. Sadly, these are the small percentage of the homeless, but they are there and your first duty is to your own safety. Fear is a very healthy emotional response to the homeless! TRUST YOUR GUT!

  6. Becky – I have noticed what you say about the connection, because of the surprising reaction to my smile. It seems disproportionate to the action.

    I believe I mis-interpreted what you wrote previously. It seemed to me that you were providing mints, and then judging the recipient based on how they responded. I see now that was an incorrect reading of your comment.

    I’ve had a few bad experiences with the homeless in Chicago, being followed, things like that. However, I find the culture here in California to be very different. There is a segment of people who choose to live this way. Now that you’ve provided these statistics, I wonder how many of them are adopting the “choice” because they don’t have an alternative. Food for thought.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. It appears our outlooks are similar, and I appreciate learning something from your perspective.

  7. Interesting thoughts. Thank you both for adding to the conversation. And I agree with Brigitte in that you two share a fair bit of common ground here.

    Brigitte, if you want to hear more of Becky’s story, check out her excellent TED talk.

  8. Brigitte, thank you. I’m not suggesting anyone judge the homeless, merely that when they give, connect or talk to the homeless they be aware of their own reactions. I like what you brought up about California. Some people do indeed choose to be homeless for many reasons. My friend Mooch Dih is one. He lives in his car so he can invest his money into his business. He creates websites and blogs for the homeless ($10 for a domain name and $5 for the site) so the homeless can begin to develop an online presence, feel connected, learn Internet marketing and begin to move towards finding jobs and housing. He’s amazing. I send my money to him and others reaching out to help single moms, the homeless etc. He’s one of the working homeless who is in California and chooses to live as he does. I hope you get to meet him someday. He’s amazing!

    What I learned during the time I was homeless was that people don’t see the person. They see the stereotype. I chose to live in my van and travel, but people chose to see that as “homelessness.” In spite of knowing about all the psychology tests and studies and vowing not to let society define me I was stunned at how quickly a negative public perception of my life style dragged me into believing I was “less than.” For those who become homeless through natural disasters, medical problems, loss of a job or car or transportation or because they can’t find child care, homelessness is the final nail in the coffin. They aren’t different. They just don’t have a house to live in any more. For some reason society thinks your IQ drops, you become an addict and you begin to enjoy smelling like a subway toilet because you can no longer pay rent. Homelessness is not about not having a home though—ultimately it’s about poverty—who has money, who does not. I know of several millionaires who do not have “homes.” They live in hotels or on cruise ships because they travel 280 days of the year. They don’t have “homes” in the traditional sense, but they do have money!

    I’m just glad you’re open and passionate about this. I, obviously, am too!

  9. I have found my “mint” (or neutral conversation starter). Carry a baby around and suddenly instead of “spare some change?” I’m asked if baby is a boy or girl or how old she is and am told to enjoy her because they grow up so fast. The first time this conversation took me by surprise but now I’m curious to see where things go from here.

  10. It disappoints me to have someone ask for help that I can hardly offer. I once made a silly prayer, ‘please God. never allow a needy person come to me to ask for something I can hardly offer.’ Now, I have discovered that even being there for someone to speak out is a healing process of the mind and soul.
    God’s spirit leads us into doing ‘what’ and for ‘whom’. We do all like we do for God. For others, smiles and nods are enough. It is a ministry on time to give what is at our disposal and feel contentend when we do not do as expected.

  11. Sarah, I’ll have to try that sometime. 😉

    Josephine, I like how you put it. We can almost always offer something. And just because a gift is small, that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

  12. Josephine, so true! The widow gave her last two “pennies” to God, who looks at our hearts, not our wealth. I think He brings people into our lives for a time and a reason and we have to trust we’ll respond as He leads us, not as we feel we “should.”

  13. I think it’s ok to “do no harm,” and use that as the starting point for human relation. Once we have that down, we can work towards “help everyone.” I see nothing wrong with what you did. Really interesting story.

  14. John, “Doing no harm” is a pretty demanding principle. What is harm? How do I account for the harm I cause others indirectly (however unintentionally) just by living a rich lifestyle? It’s a constant struggle for me and sometimes can prevent me from helping at all (but that could just be me).

    I’m learning that what works well for me is to start with the intrinsic value of the other person and go from there.

    PS: Thanks for your comment. It gave me lots to ponder.

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