I clearly remember the pounding rain as I drove my pickup onto the west-bound off ramp from I-105 to Mohawk Boulevard in Springfield, Oregon. A haggard looking man, mid-thirties maybe, wearing a rain-soaked black watch cap and a faded army jacket, rain dripping from his beard, was simply standing at the intersection, looking at me. He had no sign, but I thought it obvious he needed help. I waited on the traffic signal, watched the windshield wipers work, and on impulse pulled a measly five dollars from my wallet. I rolled the window down and handed it to him.
He uttered the mandatory, “God Bless” and then immediately walked to a fir tree where a huge backpack I hadn’t noticed took shelter from the rain. I had time to watch him slip the pack on and rush up to the sidewalk on the overpass before the light changed and I had to move on. I thought then, and hope now he was headed for McDonald’s for a hot burger and a cup of warm coffee.
I don’t often yield to the impulse to give money to the homeless holding cardboard signs. I don’t believe them when they say, Out of Gas; Anything Helps; Vet With Heart Problems; Broke Down…that kind of thing. (Last summer I did give twenty bucks to a family traveling to Yakima or some such place, and ran out of gas money. But that was different. They had two small, well groomed kids, and McDonald’s was a half block away. Kids shouldn’t go hungry…especially in the USA.)
I make a couple trips each year on Highway 97, the major north-south route in Oregon on the east side of the Cascades. One of my favorite stops is the rest area a couple miles south of Chemult. Over the past three years, I have seen the same decrepit looking motor home and the same guy leaning against the wall of the restroom. His sign says, OUT OF GAS. (How the heck did he get there?) I’ve also seen his motor home across the highway at the northbound rest area. I suspect he works the rest areas up and down 97 and makes the same pitch. I never give him anything.
He adds to my growing cynicism about the homeless. But there is one homeless man who amuses me…a lot. I have to grin each time I spot him. You see, he has dispensed with the sign. He just holds up both hands…like he had one. And I mime right back…like I was giving him money.
I hope someday to be free of guilt when I drive past theses poor souls and don’t give them anything. I can’t help but wonder if I shouldn’t help more, and then I remember the motor home guy, and the homeless man who doesn’t even bother with a sign. For now I settle for a small prayer and wish them good luck.