Homeless in LA

Oct 24, 2013

This is a bit of a departure for me. I usually cover such hard-hitting subjects as handbag reviews and product launch events. But this week something really got under my skin.

I met a homeless woman, and I didn't help her.

I was coming home late and stopped to pick up some food. As I was walking in, a woman sitting in the restaurant called me over. She asked if I could help.

At this point, I would like to say my heart melted and that I as a good human would have done anything necessary to help someone else. But I didn't.

I asked if I could get her some food, and she said no. What she really needed, she said, was a hotel for the night. She used to live in Beverly Hills, and something happened and she'd lost her home, and... then she started crying.

When I was younger, I met a woman near my house who told me she was a teacher and her car had broken down and she just needed some money to get back home. I gave her $40. She told me she'd come back the next day to pay me back. She didn't. I think she needed the $40 more than I did, but I also never forgot the experience.

About a year ago, I walked past a homeless man on the way to Target. He looked tired and dirty and asked if I could give him anything to help. I went to Target and spent $15 (nothing, in the grand scheme of things) on healthy, durable foods. A few minutes later I walked back and handed him a bag of peanuts, apple sauce, jerky, things I thought might help sustain him for awhile. He looked at me like I had given him poison. He turned his back to me and asked the people walking by for money. I left the bag, but that look stayed with me.

So when this woman started crying, my heart did melt. It hurts to see another person feel broken. But as much as I hate to admit it, I was skeptical. As I waited for my food, I called 2-1-1 to find out about available local services. When I got through the line, I turned around to give the woman what information I could. She wasn't there.

Forgive me if this sounds rude, but I've come to firmly believe that organizations specifically set up for this mission are able to provide help much more effectively than I can. When I got home, I made a donation to the Downtown Women's Center. I gave them $36. It was more than I would have given the woman in the restaurant, but as I drove home I felt acutely aware of how luxurious this handbag hobby of mine is. $36 isn't nothing, but it's definitely something I can spare.

The Downtown Women's Center website tells me that $36 provides a week of basic services for ten women. I'm trying to tell myself that helping ten women for a week is more cost effective than helping one woman for one night. Mathematically it makes sense, but my heart is still a little sore.

Should I have given her money for a hotel? In this city, a hotel for one night would have been more than double what I gave to the Downtown Women's Center. I'm not sure I would have felt good about that either.

Honestly, I'm not sure what I should have done. But I do know I was unprepared. So, should you ever find yourself in this situation, here's what I suggest:
  1. Call your local information line, usually by just dialing 2-1-1. They can direct you to emergency food and shelter near your location.
  2. If you do have the means to help, consider a local organization that helps those who need it. They can probably stretch your dollar farther than you can. I gave to the Downtown Women's Center because they teach entrepreneurial skills, something I am passionate about. There are hundreds of organizations with different specialties out there. If you're not sure where to start, try Charity Navigator.
  3. If you can't give money but still want to do something, there are lots of volunteer opportunities. Try searching VolunteerMatch - a quick search using the keyword "homeless" in my zip code gave me 254 opportunities.
Did I do the right thing? I don't know. I don't feel good about it, but I'm still struggling to find what the "right thing" would have been. I hope the woman I met found a safe place to sleep and some services to help her. I hope that my $36 helps the next woman find another option before she has to ask a stranger for help. And I hope that the next stranger in that situation finds a better solution than I did.

photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc


  1. You did the right thing. Yes, it irks when someone comes up asking for help and you can't help immediately, or in the way they wish you would help. That's where that feeling of "guilt" comes from. Humans naturally want to help one another.

    But asking for someone to pay for a hotel room because they no longer live in Beverly Hills? Yeah. I support you in your skepticism. However, offering to find out info about shelters was the right thing to do, as was donating money to one of those shelters. Had she been in earnest, that would have been an acceptable alm.

    Do not let her guilt you because you didn't give her a hotel room. Somewhere several more women are grateful because of your donation.

    1. Wow, thank you SO much. I can't believe I'm only just seeing this comment. I still think about this moment and wonder. Thank you for making me feel better.

  2. I used to struggle with this issue a lot after just moving to NYC. You get asked for money about three times per subway ride. After a few months I no longer felt bad ignoring people as they walked down the length of the train. When you see the same person twice a day, and have their speech memorized, you just have to, in order to get through the day. When I see people giving money, I immediately think, "tourist." Because the relentless asking of money on the train is really draining, and sometimes infuriating, unless you turn what some may call a blind eye.
    But of course, I struggle with my own reaction. When I see other people giving, I really respect them, and have such admiration of them for the kindness they just showed. But the truth is, these people aren't spending these dollars on bananas. They are absolutely spending it on quick feel-good fixes. I would do the exact same thing.
    So I totally agree with your decision to help ten women rather than just one. I really admire that mindset, and even more, that you actually did it.
    The good news is, I have seen a lot of people on the trains in New York hand out cards printed with shelter and homeless services information, instead of handing out dollars. There is absolutely no gesture of caring too small!

    1. Oh my gosh thank you Coral! I can't believe I'm only just now seeing these comments. I LOVE the idea of having a pre-printed card with resources on it. I certainly don't get asked as often as you do (I might buckle under the repetition of your subway experiences) but it's enough to make me wish I had something. What a good idea!

  3. Anna, you are an amazing woman and I am glad I have your example to follow. You did far more than most would have done in that situation and I hope your post inspires more individuals to take your suggests when faced with that next person.

    1. Says the woman who has made her living from serving others since the day we met and longer :). All joking aside though, thank you. It's tough to make decisions like that in the moment and I feel better knowing you think I made the right one.


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