What Would You Do?

Homeless man with dog in the cold - Copy

By Judy Berman

Public shaming seems to be in vogue, and the homeless are being used to make the point.

In one story making the rounds on social media, an unshaven man in a raggedy coat enters a church. He definitely stands out among the well-dressed folks who gather for worship.

Those who bother to look his way, shun him. Then they turn their attention to a speaker at the lectern who announces that their new pastor is at this service. The speaker invites the pastor to come up and introduce himself.

People gasp when the unshaven man stands and walks down the aisle. He chastises the congreation for not living their faith when they saw someone who appeared to be homeless.

They, of course, are remorseful for their behavior.

I thought of this when I read two other bloggers’ stories about how folks respond when someone falls in a public place.

Jim McKeever’s blog, Irish Investigations, focuses on a video by Modern Pranksers. In it, there are two men on crutches – one well-dressed and the other one appearing to look homeless.

When the well-dressed man falls, people rush to assist him. Not so with the “homeless” man. The only one who helps him is another homeless man. The story is here.

Such pranks, that are played for entertainment on YouTube and on TV shows, “may reinforce people’s aversion to helping someone who looks ‘homeless’ or different in any respect,” Jim says.

I agree. There are better ways to increase awareness about helping others.

Homeless - U. S. Army soldiers - Stand Down for Homelessness

Diana Schwenk’s experience was different. On her blog, Talk to Diana, she wrote about the time that she was the one who fell in the street and no one came to help her. She was confounded and surprised. Her story is here.

“I imagine most homeless folks have felt this way at one time or another,” Diana says. “This is what it must be like to feel invisible.”

Homeless man on Mission St

There have been a few times when I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone to help a stranger. One of them was many years ago, when I first moved to Syracuse, New York.

It was evening. As I strolled along James Street toward State Street, I saw a man fall. His crutches lay next to him.

My first thought was that he had just come from the bar that I had passed.

As I drew closer, I suspected that he was in no condition to cross that heavily traveled four-lane intersection.

So, I helped him up. He staggered as we walked across the street. I supported him as he climbed the steep steps to the entrance of his apartment building. He thanked me, and we parted ways.

I never saw him again, but I think about him often and hope that he’s doing well.

Such acts might be considered foolhardy, given the existence of monsters like Ted Bundy who preyed on kind-hearted women. The serial murderer lured them to help him by feigning an injury.

Looking back, I realize things could have turned out differently.

Still, I’m glad I came to his rescue then.

Would I do the same today? I don’t know.

But, if I do, I want my actions to be driven by a desire to do the right thing and not because I’d be concerned someone might be watching and taping the encounter for a prank video.


Do these types of videos and actions help or hurt the homeless?


Music Video: Angel in Disguise – Songs for the Homeless – The people in this video reveal that homelessness can happen to anyone. There are plenty of worthwhile agencies where you can help.   

Thanks to my angel in disguise, my husband, for taking part in delivering food to homeless shelters and helping at a food kitchen for the homeless. Happy Valentine’s Day, honey.

Link: Jim McKeever’s blog “Irish Investigations” – “Hidden Camera Test of Kindness: Good Idea, but Unfair Prank” https://irishinvestigations.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/hidden-camera-test-of-kindness-good-idea-but-unfair-prank/

Link: Diana Schwenk’s blog “Talk to Diana” – “What it Must Feel Like to be Invisible” https://talktodiana.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/what-it-must-feel-like-to-be-invisible/

Photo: Homeless man and dog in the cold

Photo: Homeless – James Brown, a student nurse at Jacksonville University School of Nursing, takes a homeless veteran’s blood pressure during the annual Stand Down for Homelessness in Savannah. Sept. 15, 2009. Source: U.S. Army http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/03/US_Army_51483_260th_Soldiers_Stand_Down_for_Homelessness.jpg/598px-US_Army_51483_260th_Soldiers_Stand_Down_for_Homelessness.jpg

Photo: Homeless man on Mission Street, San Francisco, California Taken Dec. 27, 2009. Source: Franco Folini http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/18/Homelessmissionst.jpg/554px-Homelessmissionst.jpg

  1. Meaningful post. I think it depends on who is watching the video’s whether or not they’ll be moved by what they saw. In the city there are both those who scam and those who need, so to help one in need all depends on how well you can access the situation. Homeless need our compassion and the scammers, they need to get a job.

    1. Thank you, Mary. I agree on your view about the scammers. There have been times when I’ve questioned whether I was “taken” when I donated to a person who appeared to be in need. Other times, I knew our involvement had a positive and direct impact on the homeless. 😉

    1. One time, Kate, my husband and I saw a man panhandling in Seattle. He had a sign: “Why Lie. I Want a Beer.” I had to laugh and added to his donations because, at least, he was honest. We also donated to two men whose signs said they didn’t drink. 😉

  2. Thanks for your post and for your shares, Judy. So many factors go into how we react in a given situation (are we in a hurry, have we had a bad morning, etc.) but I, too, like to think we would “err in the direction of kindness,” as George Saunders wrote. I suppose charades like the new pastor are helpful, but I do have issues with the camera trick. Jim

    1. Jim … I agree. When you “err in the direction of kindness,” you can feel much better about how you’ve responded to any situation. A quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind.”

      I have issues with both the new pastor example and the camera tricks. 😉

  3. I agree, the prank videos may do more harm than good if people are afraid to help for that reason. Beautiful story about your own experience )

    1. I find the prank videos a complete turn off because of the public shaming. Thank you for your comments. I sometimes act impulsively and then, later, I’ll say: “What were you thinking?” But it turned out OK. 😉

  4. I don’t know if they help or hurt the homeless, but there seems to be better ways to motivate people to help those in need. Perhaps a video listing small and easily doable acts people can perform to help the homeless would be a better way of effecting change.

    1. That’s a great suggestion, Carrie. There are many things folks can do to help the homeless. Two suggestions: donate canned goods to a food pantry for the homeless and needy, and help out in food kitchens that serve the homeless.

      Years ago, in Syracuse, New York, Dave and I donated pizzas and sodas to an overnight shelter (the Oxford Inn) for the homeless. One time, we stayed and helped serve the food. It’s one time where I know that our contribution made a direct impact on those who we felt needed it most. Syracuse winter’s are often brutal. These men – and there often were 70 or more – had to leave the shelter in the morning no matter what the weather was like.

  5. Judy, I love this post and your beautiful heart! Thank you for linking back to my post as well. ❤

    Your first story reminded me of a time when I was a guest speaker at a church. I was in my late 20s, and had been working at a homeless organization as a 'street outreach worker' for a couple of years. I showed up at the church dressed as was usual for me at the time, looking kind of granola-ish in jeans, etc.

    Upon entering the church, I was mostly ignored, but one man handed me a pamphlet on how to be saved and offered up the name of the very organization I worked for as a place that could help me out. I cracked up laughing and told him I was there as his guest speaker and asked if he would kindly direct me to my contact person at the church. 😀 He was deeply apologetic. 😉

    Diana xo

    1. Diana … If I had been in that man’s shoes, I would have been mortified, too. But, if I had been in your shoes, I definitely would have cracked up laughing. 😆

      Thank you for letting me share your story. It was a shock that no one came to your rescue. As for my experience, I hadn’t shared that story for decades, mostly because I didn’t want people telling me how naïve and crazy I was. 😉

      1. I don’t think your naïve and crazy at all Judy. To me you are brave and act in spite of your feelings of vulnerability. I cannot think of anything stronger or more beautiful.

  6. It’s more complicated than it seems. The National Geographic show Brain Games (a series worth watching) episode dealing with that very subject pointed to conflicting reasons why we might or might not help someone who falls, or needs a few bucks, etc.

    It’s affected by looks, but not consistently, but by the situation and by perceptions. You walk away from watching it without a clear “people do this” because actions and reactions vary based on fairly complicated “rules” people have for when to get involved and when not to get involved.

    As far as whether watching videos alters perception . . . hard to say. Often videos are sensationalized, either on purpose or because the situation is highly unusual.

    Let me say this . . . one news story of some homeless or other committing a crime or hurting someone will undo any influence of any twenty or more of the “good homeless” videos.

    Ultimately, I think most people have the desire to help, and have the necessary compassion for wanting to see others not suffer. The world, unfortunately, is more complicated than “he just fell into some bad luck”.

    Drugs, drinking, mental issues, antisocial behavior are all mixed in there with people who have genuinely fallen into hard times through no fault of their own. Most people don’t have the time or resources to sort out between the two, and for some, and I’ll freely admit me being one of them, the risk is not worth it.

    That said, monetary support for food banks, local food pantries, used clothing stores, and shelters somewhat alleviates, but never completely removes, the guilt one feels at not getting personally involved.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Disperser. There have been at least two situations where I wondered if I’d done the right thing. One was in Syracuse, New York. It looked like there had been an accident and the people were shouting for help. As I was alone and it was late at night, I drove on by. I learned later that this was a scam. In a similar scenario, motorists who stopped had been robbed.

      The other was a man panhandling in Utica, New York where I worked as a reporter. I saw him outside the fire station. When I parked my car, he came over to me and asked if I had any money. I told him to follow me into the station. He did and the firefighters promptly told him to leave. Another reporter, who was pretty street savvy, told me later: “Don’t you ever stop and open your purse around a stranger.” Police told me later that the panhandler was a scammer and a con artist.

      So potential tragedy avoided twice.

      Some people feel more comfortable writing a check. But the times when my husband and I have gotten personally involved were very rewarding. A reminder to me that I need to do this again. 😉

  7. It bothers me that someone would set up a situation merely to post it on YouTube–or that instead of helping themselves, they choose to film the incident. I can see why people might help or be afraid to help someone.
    Many years ago, I ran over something on a highway that ruined my tire. I pulled off the next exit–this was right in Philadelphia–and when I pulled over, a man offered to change my tire. He may or may not have been homeless, but he did not ask for anything, simply changed my tire for me. I did give him some money, and apologized for not having more. This was before cell phones, and I was anxious about trusting the man, but I was grateful.

    1. Merril … For me, the prank is for ‘entertainment.’ People, mostly, are kind hearted, and they do want to help. But, when they discover that there was no ’emergency,’ they might not get involved the next time.

      I know how you felt. Several years ago, my tire went flat. I pulled off the side of the road, and two men in a van pulled up and offered to help. While I appreciated the offer, I was nervous. When a former co-worker saw me, she pulled in and asked if I was okay. I asked her to stay with me and follow me when I went to the car shop to get it fixed. She did. The men changed the tire. I thanked them and gave them some money. But, I could never shake the feeling that something about them just made me anxious.

  8. Hi Judy – great post! Just last night I passed up a young tiny girl carrying a baby down on the south side walking. It was zero last night. Syracuse weather like you mention is brutal. I didn’t follow up this time but have helped too many other times. I’ve been lucky most times. The worst was helping someone I knew with a ‘date’ and had a knife put to my throat … that was my first and sadly not my last. I liked the idea of a person calling 911 now that we have it and ‘staying around’ until they get help ( that can take literally hours and if nearby go and get help from the Rescue Mission or Salvation Army, fire station. Another help is to make up bags with a toothbrush and paste and soap a;long with bandaids, antibiotic and the like and hand them out. If you can do 10 a month it helps even 5 and if you are able more! There is never help that is too small! Sadly not being helped isn’t just for the homeless. Families do this to their own. I came down with Bell’s Palsy, vertigo and the like. For quite some time I had to crawl around in the apartment. I needed groceries and had money to buy then and give money for the help … I had thought that someone from the family would help or even friends. I got call me back and I will see if I can later or your resourceful and I have my own family to take care of and many more! So for weeks it was hard but made it through. I didn’t have a pity party but it was more of a WOW time! I think everyone needs to keep themselves safe first so they can help someone else down the road! For the rest of us I really believe there but for the Grace of God we could and might be there down the road. There are many things we all can do and being cautious isn’t wrong! Nowadays we have cell phones and so much more except phone booths! But we can always go get help or be a volunteer to help! Especially children! Thakns for letting me share and blessing to all of you! =) Rick

    1. Rick … Thanks for some good suggestions to help those in need. It’s comforting to know that there is someone you can turn to when help is needed. I’m sorry you had to go thru that experience on your own. When I moved away from home, the first thing I missed was my mother’s chicken noodle soup when I came down with a cold or the flu. A neighbor downstairs did look in after me and she made some soup for me. I appreciated her thoughtfulness and wish every one had an angel like that to look out for them. Blessings to you as well, Rick.

  9. The prank videos are upsetting to me. I’m sure there have been times where I’ve been scammed by a person pretending to be homeless or in need. I simply can’t pass by someone who appears to be in need. I think I got a triple dose of the compassion gene at birth. Great post, Judy!

  10. A touching “nudge” for the show of help and love, Judy. One of my few directly involved moments was when I saw a man not unlike the one in your first picture. But he wasn’t as touching and the dog wasn’t in his arms but hunkered down beside him, and there’d just been a newscast about the fake homeless panhandling. But instead of walking away, I went across the parking lot to the grocery store and bought a sandwich, coffee, bottled water and apples for him, and 3 cans of dog food (with flip tops) for his friend. Sometimes your heart just says that if it’s a scam, then that’s what it is, but you can’t walk away.

    1. I think your approach was sensible and caring for both the man and his dog. Bless you for your kindness to a total stranger.

      When we were in Paris in 2013, I gave money to a panhandler with two small, well-behaved doggies. They sat outside the bakery we went to each day. I asked if I could take a photo. He said ‘yes.’ That photo is a reminder of how people touch our souls in a very good way. I couldn’t just walk away either. 😉

  11. I’m against the trick videos, I think the pastor should be ashamed of himself for playing his new congregation for fools to make his point, and I’m proud of you for helping that man back in your Syracuse days, Judy. I would like to think I’d help first and worry later, too, but that’s not alway good, as you point out, because mean and evil people are ready to prey on good Samaritans.

    1. Mark … If a pastor acted like that, I’m pretty sure I’d start checking out another congregation. There are more positive ways to send a message. Thank you for the compliment. Helping that man to the Snowden Apartments was a spontaneous gesture. 😉

  12. Beautiful message Judy I guess we are all different and we all react differently. I use to give money to the homeless selling a magazine in which they use to earn a percentage. I lived in the inner city for many years and almost became hardened by seeing many people asking for money. I guess thats what happens to us. It gets easier to just turn a blind eye.You were very brave I might add.

    1. Depending on the day … or evening … my reactions would be different as well. Kath, when this happened, I hadn’t lived in Syracuse that long and my protective instincts just kicked in. I suspected that man couldn’t have made it across such a busy intersection on his own. I’m not so sure I was brave to help out. But, thank you for that. 😉

  13. I believe that any one of us , at some time , could fall on hard times, and yes, could become homeless . I read a book once , the content has always stayed in my memory but sadly not the title or the author , about a man who came from right up there to lose everything and eventually to be found on the streets begging . He looked so bad not even his family recognized him.
    You have to walk in anyone’s shoes to know don’t you Judy.
    I can remember when I broke my ankle and I was on crutches , I foolishly decided to go shopping alone , I became invisible , doors were let go in my face ,or I had to struggle with opening them . I don’t think that anyone would consciously do that . I think people are so wrapped up in themselves they don’t think of others . It was an awful experience . So now I try to be aware of people an their struggles but who knows, unconsciously, I could be the person ignoring someone when my head is somewhere else …I really hope not .

    1. I think you’re right, Cherry. At times, like many of us, I felt I was just one paycheck away from disaster. When I was out of a job, especially when I was raising two girls, that bout of unemployment rattled me. Not for me. For my girls. So I do understand what someone might be going thru when they hit hard times.

      I’m sorry you had that experience when you broke your ankle. Your perception of their reaction is spot on. People are often caught up in their own struggles and are, unconsciously, aware of other people’s dilemmas.

  14. Now, this raises so many thoughts and points and how compassion can make us make the wrong decisions. When I commuted to London over twenty years ago I would often walk back to the mainline station through what used to be called “cardboard city” – an area where the homeless people congregated and slept. I’d donate something from the sandwich shop I passed but never money.

    1. Sorry, didn’t finish last comment before my iPad decided to post it!
      Drugs were rife and I didn’t want to facilitate that. Happily now , cardboard city has disappeared and there are several very good charities which help the homeless off the streets and into shelter. There is also a very good cafe chain who donate all the unsold cakes and sandwiches to their nearest shelter. I stand by my decision not to provide money- I see that Marylin does the same.

      1. Jenny … Not donating money – but just food or coffee – directly to the homeless person is a safe way to help and not put yourself in jeopardy. I heard about a plan called “suspended coffee” that was adopted by some coffee chains. The idea is that someone donates money at the store for anyone who comes in so that that person – who can’t afford coffee – can get a free one. When we were in Syracuse, New York last year, a coffee shop had a plan like this in place. I thought it was a great idea, especially on very cold days. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2301855/Charity-coffee-scheme-launches-UK-lets-drinkers-donate-lattes-need.html

        In our area, a bagel shop owner told me that he wanted to donate any unsold bagels to a shelter. The problem is no one would come to pick them up. That’s a shame because the bagels just get tossed out.

  15. Good question. No easy answers. I think it depends upon who is viewing the video, and the motives for watching.

    It’s sad that we can’t freely help everyone who appears to need it. Life is certainly complicated, isn’t it?

  16. Thanks for sharing this touching, heart-warming post my friend. It is sad that more and more are becoming apathetic to those who are poor, those in need, to those who are victims of life’s hardships and unfortunate circumstances. I would have picked up someone too if they had fallen or assist them to walk if needed because that is the world I grew up in as a child. It is sad too that evil people can take advantage of someone’s kindness and turn it against them. It is sad too that most of us go to church and pray, listen to God’s words yet don’t see God himself in the eyes of someone in need or forgotten. Inspiring post. God bless you and your family always.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Island Traveler. There will always be those who will take advantage of a situation. But thank heaven there are so many more – like you – who would help those in need.

  17. From the out-pouring of commentary here you have touched a nerve. I feel ambivalent about helping the homeless since people who work at rescue missions warn us to never give money but direct the destitute to their missions. But I have to think also that I am God’s hands to the world, so I sometimes buy tuna or chicken lunch packs to give to those holding pieces of cardboard, begging on the streets. Jacksonville, which you referenced, has a high rate of homelessness I suspect because of the attraction of a milder climate.

    My husband’s Sunday School class at church welcomes the homeless to their gathering of mostly middle-class members, gives them refreshments and collects clothing and toiletries for the taking. They are welcome!

    About the videos – It depends on the motivation – no easy answers here as your commentators point out.

    1. Marian … As you pointed out, there are so many ways to help without putting yourself in jeopardy. Years ago, when I was working at a Syracuse radio station, I interviewed quite a few homeless folks in different settings – having dinner in a small group setting at one homeless place, donating pizzas to an overnight shelter, and talking with folks lining up for a meal outside of a church downtown. One-on-one, every experience was positive. If we could only reach every one that way. 😉

  18. I do believe it is true that people do largely judge others by appearance, it’s a natural instinct to sum up the situation rapidly, and part of that assessment of the situation there seems to be a checking devise in our brains for possible danger, and you can’t blame anyone for that really – we all do it. Although I’m sure for some it is a nasty habit of automatically looking down their noses at anyone who does appear like they are – and of course we all it because those people are flawless! 😉

    That was good you were able to help that man out Judy, must have been hard work and also carried a potential risk. But we have to go with our gut instinct in a lot of situations like that. I had a situation where a man was staggering towards me almost falling off the edge of the pavement. I was new to city life and it was at a time when we were beginning to see a lot more ‘homeless druggies’ as they were referred to. Th advise was to look the other way and never get your purse out to give them money or they’ll be gone with it before you can react fast enough. And that was true, but I was confused with that man staggering because he seemed smartly dressed with a small rucksack on his back. When collapsed on the ground and his head repeatedly banged off the pavement I realised he was having a fit. I put my hands under the man’s head just to stop him cracking his head open – that was painful – my poor fingers got a beating! Someone else intervened and we got his ruck sack under his head – huge relief! Like you, I never saw that man again once the ambulance arrived and took him away, and I hope our small effort helped to save his life. An intimate interaction with complete strangers like that is a very strange experience, but does leave you with a good feeling that maybe we should live more of our life like that.

    I hope society doesn’t get to the stage of ignoring the helpless stranger, that would be terrible. Because the reality is – it could be us or family or friends one of these days.

    1. Lucky for that man that you were there, Suzy. Quick thinking on your part and that of the other person who intervened.

      There is a proverb, attributed to the Chinese culture, that says when you save someone’s life then you are responsible for that person from that moment on. Maybe, that’s the mantle you take on because you are left wondering … as you and I both are … about that person whose life you touched ever so briefly. You hope they’re OK and get better. 😉

      I believe there’s still a lot of good in people. The only way most folks might not help that stranger in need is if they were too busy on their mobile devices to notice those around them. I think of the photo I saw on the internet of a man texting on a boat, totally oblivious to a whale that surfaced very near him. 😉

  19. Judy, your story was heartwarming. You have a kind and caring heart. I think we must try to help others, despite the possibility of scams. It is how we act that we are judged that makes a difference. I am saddened when I read of scams, though. I don’t respect a person of faith who misleads his congregation… But it is not my place to ‘judge’ him…

    1. Thanks, Carl, for your support of the homeless. My first contact with a homeless man was when I was a teen and we lived in the country. My Dad contacted the Rescue Mission to help a farm worker who was fired by a neighboring farmer in the dead of winter. Dad drove the man 30 miles to their shelter in Syracuse, New York. They provided a place for him to stay, food and work. So that’s why we support the Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. 😉

  20. Great post, Most Kind and Compassionate One! There’s something about stunts and shaming that bothers me. Much better to just volunteer and pitch in with established charities– much like Dave did, delivering food to homeless shelters. That’s the kind of good example that really pays off in the long run.

    1. I saw another stunt on Facebook where a kid was curled up on the street. He was supposed to be homeless. I really question the judgment of folks who perpetuate these types of pranks just for the media attention.

      You’re right, Mark. There are so many things folks can do to help those in need. Most take very little time and are greatly appreciated. 😉

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