Reader Rebecca Strong of Seattle wrote this week to share a wonderful idea she’s been enacting when she sees people on the street asking for money. I asked if I might abridge her email for this blog, and she agreed. This is something we practice here in Los Angeles, too. Just as it feels great to feed someone you love, so too does it feel great to give a meal to someone you don’t know—who needs it:
“I wanted to be compassionate, but I was uneasy about giving out money because, as a petite, middle-aged woman, I was uncomfortable opening my wallet to hand out money when walking alone in the city. I wanted to help people buy food or other necessities, but I worried that money might be used to buy drugs and alcohol. At the same time, I didn’t want to judge anyone as being more or less likely to buy drugs and alcohol, or more or less worthy of receiving help from me.
I asked my favorite Real Change vendor who sells his papers outside the Walgreen’s in my neighborhood for advice. (Real Change is a newspaper and organization that exists to provide opportunity and a voice for low-income and homeless people in Seattle.) He told me about one very cold morning when he was homeless and hungry. A man he did not know offered to buy him a hot breakfast. Together they went to a supermarket. Standing before a case of hot food in the deli, the hungry man chose what he wanted to eat, and the kind stranger paid for it. The man remembered every detail of that meal, and he said it was the most delicious food he had ever eaten. His suggestion to me was to purchase gift cards for restaurants like McDonalds and give them to the people on the streets who ask for money.
Since I don’t eat in fast food restaurants myself, and since I wanted to give people who might prefer healthier options the ability to choose their own food, I came up with the idea of giving supermarket gift cards instead.
So now I regularly purchase $5.00 gift cards from local supermarkets and food co-ops, and I keep them in my jacket pocket. Whenever I encounter someone out on the street who is asking for money, I offer a card. I explain that it is a gift card worth $5.00 to buy food. Most people are surprised, delighted, and grateful to receive a card for buying food. It seems to me that these gift cards are an ideal way to be compassionate towards people who have no money to buy food.
In my own mind, I call the supermarket gift cards I give out Compassion Cards because they allow me to be compassionate towards the needy people I encounter in the city. When I give a Compassion Card to someone on the street, although it is a brief encounter, it is a meaningful experience. It is an opportunity for me to offer help and for someone to receive my help in a personal way. It is uplifting for both of us.”