My Beggar Challenge

“If you’re not going to change your mind, then just agree to one thing: don’t spend $10 on alcohol this week,” the homeless man said.

“OK,” I agreed.

“Or on anything.”

The man had called to me from his perch on a rock wall on the edge of Capitol Hill’s sport field, also known as Cal Anderson Park. When I’d passed the field earlier in the afternoon, a team had been practicing baseball. In previous years I played a few co-ed soccer games on that field. Now a group haphazard group of young people milled about wearing Seahawk jerseys.

“Don’t take this wrong,” he said. I assumed he was going to give me some pickup line or flirtatious remark. He was good-looking and appeared close to my age.

“My name is Sam.”

“I’m Emily.”

“You are very beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“Could you spare me a few dollars?”

“I don’t give out money,” I replied.

“I don’t do drugs or spend money on women.”

“He does appear sober,” I thought.

“I’ll buy you some food but I don’t give out cash,” I replied.

“Well, you see, there’s a problem with that. All the stores around here know me and don’t like having a homeless guy come in there all the time. I’m 6’ 10” so I stand out, you see, and they look down on a guy like me coming in there.”

“Or look up,” I joked.

He laughed.

“Yeah. I’m a bit OCD about my eating. Every evening I go to the 7-11 and buy a package of Ramen, Doritos and a Gatorade. Then after I eat I have nothing to do but sleep.”

“Well now that you’ve given me your shopping list, I can get that for you.” I knew my do-gooder side was showing. Some might consider this trait generous, others foolish and still others a case of white privilege.

“But it’s not that simple. You see, I’d also like to take a shower and do laundry. I only know of one shelter here and it’s full of smelly old men. I don’t like going there. I don’t like people seeing me as ‘homeless.’ I just want to get my life back. I have only two friends in this city and they let me use their shower sometimes and their address for getting my ID mailed but I don’t want always bother them. Anyway, if you don’t want to change your policy, I understand. Thank you for taking time to talk with me. Many people just walk by. But I think everyone deserves the dignity of being noticed, even if they’re addicted to drugs and laying on the curbside.”

“I agree.”  Though I had to admit I’d contemplated leaving as soon as he asked for money. But the sermon I’d heard that morning had emphasized how God can speak through unexpected sources, and it seemed this man might be such a source.

“Someone gave me one of those tickets and I told my homeboy if I won, we’d get rid of it as quickly as possible. After paying taxes, we’d just give it all away to homeless people. We’d give it away in-person. We wouldn’t go through an organization. The worst is that Union Gospel Mission.”

“The shelter you mentioned going to earlier?”

“Yes. They get so much money. I calculated after paying all their employees and costs, that still leaves $50 million! So where does that money go? To the property owners who do nothing. Shoot, if I won $1.3 billion, I told my homeboy we could buy Seattle!”

“A single house costs about $1 million now,” I said.

“For real? Excuse my language but I just like to say f**k California. Two million dollar flats?!”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“So I prayed to God that if I won I would give it all away. But I couldn’t trust myself with it. And then this morning when I woke up, the ticket was gone. I checked three times today and no one won last night. Well if you haven’t changed your mind, that’s fine.”

“Yeah, sorry, that’s my policy.”

“That’s fine, but then I challenge you not to spend any money this week. I see guys pass by all the time and refuse to give me $10 then spend $200 to get drunk and hail an Uber to drive them and a bunch of girls home. I had to help them in the car, they were so drunk!”

About that time one of the Seahawks  jersey-wearing guys in the park stumbled barefoot down the steps next to us and collapsed on the ground.

“You ok?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said as the guy’s girlfriend helped him up.

“Remember this name—Emerald City, like Seattle is the Emerald City,” I said.

“Yeah, like the Wizard of Oz.”

“Yes, ‘Emerald City Bible Fellowship.’  It’s a church and a community where my office is. You said you want to get your life back. It’s really all aspects—spiritual, social, material…”

“It’s not that I want to get my life back. I have a life here, but what’s the difference between a rich man and a poor man?” he looked me straight in the eye as he posed this question. “Most people would say money. But really it’s lying. I can sit here all day and ask people for $10, $20, $100 and guarantee that 15% will talk to me and give me something. At least I tell them ‘thank you.’ And just like me, many wealthy people spend their days sitting and talking to people. They get their money through lying and corruption. That’s why I understand when Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a camel than for a rich man to be saved. And I know you are a child of God. And Jesus also said if you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, you have done it to me.”

“You have a lot of wisdom,” I said. “If you come down to Emerald City Bible Fellowship, you can meet other smart people like you. They also give gift cards to people who need it for grocery stores like Safeway and QFC. And there’s a fitness center next door where I work and you can volunteer in exchange for a membership.”

“Now the fitness center is the only part of what you mentioned that I’d be interested in. I need to get my body back in shape. It’s part of getting my life back. Where did you say it’s located?”

“On Rainier Avenue.”

“Where’s that?”

“South of here. See if you go to the end of this street and turn left on Broadway, then follow that to Boren, Boren will turn into Rainier Avenue.”

“So you haven’t changed you mind?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Ok. Thanks for listening.”

As I drove home, I thought about our conversation. For other homeless people I have often purchased a smoothie, coffee or even a sandwich. But with Sam I left not giving him anything save a few minutes of my time. He, however, had given me a challenge.

“Could I really go a week without spending $10? Or any money?” I asked myself.

I had just spent over $20 on two hours of entertainment singing karaoke with my friends. Could I go an entire week without spending any more?

“I have a few groceries left. Perhaps I can fudge and use my gift cards from Christmas to buy fresh produce and a few essential items. I’ll have to forego online purchases too. And perhaps cancel plans with friends that involve spending money.”

I decided to accept his challenge…

A Week Without Spending

Monday. I had planned to stay late after work and participate in a class or two at our fitness center. My friend and co-worker (who hosted me at her home for Thanksgiving) spotted me at the front desk and asked how long I’d be there.

“Well, I want to go to these classes but need to round up some grub first,” I said.

“You can have some of this rice.” She handed me a container of leftover carry-out.

“And get some hummus out of the fridge upstairs.” The rice held me over until my workout and the hummus paired with some Rye crackers made a perfect post-workout snack. She didn’t know how grateful I was for the food!

Tuesday. I met up for lunch with a friend who works at the Seattle Urban Academy. She texted me that morning that lunch would be served at 11 AM so I decided to skip breakfast, but my blood sugar was dropping by the time I arrived.

“Lunch isn’t actually until 11:50,” she told me when I arrived. “So let’s go get coffee first.” I ordered a fruit smoothie and offered to help pay with my gift card but she insisted on treating me. I thanked her and afterwards told her about the challenge which inspired a conversation on money and stewardship.

Adding another level of difficulty to the challenge, I recently gave up white flour and sugar. Throughout the week I was astounded by how much free food is created using one or both of these two ingredients. Leftover lasagna in the break room. Cookies before a community meeting. Brownies and hamburger buns at the school where I joined my friend for lunch. I skipped the brownie and decided since within reason I try to eat whatever is served me when I’m the guest (no matter what dietary restrictions I hold to for health). I watched in relief, however, when the man sitting next to me at our table removed his hamburger bun and began cutting his meat with a fork and knife. I decided to follow suit.

Tuesday evening I had plans to boulder with a friend. I used over half of my gift card to pay for the entrance fee, hoping I wouldn’t have to buy too many groceries or anything else before the week was out.

Wednesday. I’d arranged to meet with friends who’ve I’ve literally been trying to see for a couple years. They had invited me over and I had asked what I could bring. Now most people will tell you either “Nothing, just bring yourself,” or make a generic request like a salad, bread or dessert. This friend, however, is the queen of specifics. She asked for Ghostfish Grapefruit IPA, saying I could purchase it at PCC.

“There goes the rest of my gift card,” I thought, “and I’ll be spending it on alcohol!”

Arriving home from bouldering I found a message from her asking to postpone our time together until the next week. I was disappointed to yet again not see my friends but thankful I wouldn’t be blowing more than $10 on alcohol this week! So instead on Wednesday I pulled out the leftover turkey and carcass that I had frozen Christmas Eve and made a simple stew with celery, one carrot, broth and seasonings. I ate two bowls for dinner and drank a cup of tea.

Thursday. I had oatmeal for breakfast and ate leftover soup for both lunch and dinner. I’d heard a rumor that we might be treating our director for lunch instead of having a weekly meeting, but everything rolled as business-as-usual. That evening a friend joined me for a ZUMBA class at the gym.

Friday. Breakfast and lunch mirrored Thursday but I was out of anything to accompany the soup. By 3:00 PM I was hungry again. I asked one of my co-workers if she wanted to grab sushi from the grocery store nearby and she suggested going to a sushi restaurant farther away. I knew that would cost more than I had on my gift card and take much longer. So I held off on grabbing anything but by 5:00 PM I was hangry and unable to think clearly. I realized I had another gift card for Shell gas station which was just a minute away. I checked the card’s description and found I could use it inside as well as at the pump. I dashed to the station and bought a small package of cashews for $2. As soon as I sat back in my car, I ripped the package open and it exploded all over my car. I collected them and found altogether they only made a handful. I realized that people like Sam often only have access to convenience stores where healthy options are limited and expensive. I wondered what he would have purchased if I had given him my gift card?12511308_994419173939742_2069857518_o

Back at the office I was still feeling ravenous so decided to down a fruit-flavored beverage that our water delivery guy had left for our staff. Even though the label claimed 0 grams of sugar, I knew it would make my stomach feel bloated, but needed a burst of energy for my final hour of work. The beverage had the expected results: helped me focus AND gave me a bloated stomach.

I arrived home close to 7 PM and ate another bowl of turkey soup plus toasted my last piece of whole wheat bread. Then I showered and headed up to a close friend’s house in North Seattle where I’d planned to stay the night. She and I decided to go listen to a musician I had met on an airplane perform at a coffee shop. The show was free but out of courtesy to the shopkeepers, I thought I’d buy at least one item using my gift card. But my friend offered to get mine so I accepted. We ordered a large plate of nachos to share. As we dug into them, I told her about the challenge.

“Well it’s a good thing I bought your nachos!” she said.

“I could have used my gift card,” I replied and realized how much I dislike depending on others, accepting them paying for my food even when it’s a good friend who offered. I think I got a sliver of the feeling Sam must experience when strangers like myself offer to buy him food. I also ate way more nachos than necessary because I was tired of being hungry and I didn’t know if I would have options without white flour and sugar at the retreat we were attending the next day.

Saturday. My friend served me a scrumptious bowl of steal-cut oats with lots of toppings. I mixed in peanut butter so I wouldn’t become hungry within an hour plus topped it with berries and coconut shavings. The remainder of our day was spent at a retreat which I had pre-paid for weeks ago. Our registration covered all meals and snacks and I was excited to see they served us healthy options. I again found myself overeating so thankful to have access to plenty of nutritious food. They even sent us home with Ziploc bags of leftovers!

Sunday. I made it through the week spending only money to buy a bouldering day pass and a bag of cashews, both with gift cards (< $20 total). I wondered if I should find Sam and tell him I had taken him up on his challenge. But in the end the challenge w
as more for me than him. Yet it’s a challenge that millions on our planet face every week not by choice but my limitations, whether born into a caste system that keeps them in a day laborer position earning less than $1 per day or living in a city where the cost of housing and transportation leaves little left for necessities like food. Sam shook my comfortable life a little with this challenge. Yet like other times in my life when I’ve been in financial crisis (due to health and school loans), I had a safety net of friends and family–community who came around and lovingly offered enough to get by. And I wonder if our world was more interconnected, could we eradicate hunger and extreme poverty? On this weekend that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., I’m inspired to dream of what could be.