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I had change and a $20 bill in my pocketbook.

I was busy, running errands on a vacation day one morning, stopped at a light in Deering Oaks. Only one other time have I given money to someone on the street corner, but in that moment, on that busy Friday before Christmas, the man and his sign brought me to tears, and I handed him the $20.

Lots of forces came into play that morning.

I’m troubled by the increase in people of all ages begging for money on Portland’s streets. Each afternoon when I get coffee at Arabica, I pass the same man on our street corner. My colleague gives him $1 regularly. I was waiting for my $4 coffee to be made one afternoon when my colleague had a day off from work. That man was leaving Arabica, not with a cup of hot coffee, but having used their restroom. He emptied his paper cup’s change into the tip jar for the baristas. I was awestruck.

I asked the workers about it and they said, “Oh, yeah. He does that. We’re good to him. He comes in to get warm and use the restroom.”

I was so touched that he would give to THEM what he had, and I texted my colleague at home to tell her that her gift to him was the right thing to do.The one time I tried to give a man $5 as I waited to turn left at a busy intersection in Westbook, I felt awkward rolling down my window and making him come to me for the cash, but I was in four lanes of traffic ready to pounce as soon as the light turned green. I held out the bill…and then saw, the man could barely walk. It was incredibly sad to see him stumble his way toward me and I leaped out of the car with complete disregard for the other drivers. I was saddened beyond belief.

And now for the tears last Friday.

My sister recently lost her job. She’s a single mother of two autistic daughters. I’ve never seen her cry. I’ve never heard her say, “Why me?”

Kiddingly, over our family Christmas party, she said someone had stolen her shtick. She thought she’d be a novelty standing on a street corner having never relied on welfare, having worked her entire life, well dressed, with a home…but definitely in need of cash very soon if a job wasn’t procured. And lo & behold, she saw just that person on a corner in her hometown in New Hampshire – not a homeless man, but you or me (or her) standing begging.

It was this that I thought of when I looked at this man in Deering Oaks who looked like he could have been one of my friends, not someone who lived out in the elements. His sign said 3 KIDS, NEVER TAKEN STATE AID… and on the back NOT 4 BEER.

I can’t help but wonder how low a person must have to get to stand on a street corner in his town in the cold and beg for money. Don’t say they’re lazy. Standing there in that most vulnerable way must be the hardest work someone could ever do.

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