When Good Intentions Go Wrong

By LIFT on September 2, 2014

Categories: First Person Perspective, Real Stories

I was out to dinner the other weekend, when someone at the table shared a story about a homeless man who had declined her family’s offer of leftover food from a steakhouse. Her eyebrows scrunched in and hands flew up as she exclaimed, “How could he not take the food? It was from a really nice restaurant!” I could feel my heart start to race, my whole body tensed. Infuriated by the ignorance of that statement,. I debated whether or not to express my frustration. In the end, I bit my tongue.

Undoubtedly, after working at LIFT for over a year now, issues of poverty and homelessness have become even more important and personal to me. Over the last year, I have gotten to know people from all walks of life trying to overcome poverty, many of whom are homeless. Working with LIFT Members, I have come to value their individual stories, individual strengths, and individual selves. Through leading member service meetings, learning their stories, and simply asking them everyday how they are doing – I have had the privilege of recognizing each and every one of these Members as a human being who has the ability to choose.

Sitting at that dinner table, this woman’s story was so upsetting because it implied that a homeless person is somehow not a full person. While she interpreted this gentleman refusing her offer of leftovers as ungrateful or picky, he was simply declining to do something that most of us would feel uncomfortable doing – eating scraps off of a stranger’s plate.  To her, sleeping on the street goes hand-in-hand with food deprivation; thus, this man is questioned for not accepting her offer of support. Being homeless, however, does not always mean one is hungry – though it can. More importantly, it does not takeaway one’s ability to make choices, and it certainly does not obligate someone to accept any and all food he is offered. We will never know why this man refused her well-intentioned offer, maybe he does not feel comfortable eating someone’s leftovers or maybe he is vegan. The point is, that he is not ridiculous for denying free food; he is a human being with the right to choose. Since working at LIFT, I now understand the value of empowering individuals to make decisions. When a member walks through our doors, he gets to work with an advocate to set goals on his own terms, to prioritize his own needs, and to determine what the first step is he wants to take.

In hindsight, I have questioned why I did not say anything and thought about all the different ways I could have responded. I wish I had chosen to speak up and offer that woman an alternate viewpoint, encouraged her to consider another way of understanding the interaction. Maybe I would have changed her perspective, maybe not, but I would have at least tried. As someone involved in the fight against poverty, it is my responsibility to take opportunities like the one above to challenge assumptions and change perceptions about the way people think about poverty and people with low and no income. So now, I challenge you to think about a time you felt you should have spoken up and didn’t. Consider why you chose not to. When this type of situation inevitably happens again, what will you be prepared to say?