Last November, I had the pleasure of visiting Atlanta for a tradeshow my company was exhibiting in. It’s been a long time since I had been there, and much had changed. I was impressed with its parks and buildings, its air of confidence, and the friendliness of its people. When it comes right down to it though, great cities are made by the people that live there.

I met Mr. Williams shortly after I parked my car. I had a lot on my mind – I had to get registered, find my booth, and figure out a way to tote all my stuff there, and all in less than an hour. Mr. Williams started the conversation. “Excuse me sir. It was really cold last night, and I’m hungry. I was wondering if you could help me out.”

It was hard to guess his age – he could have been forty, he could’ve been sixty. The only thing that seemed obvious, from his appearance and his manner, was that he has lived this way for many years.

I am not shocked or surprised when this happens, because it’s a fact of life in our society, especially in the larger cities. I have spent some time in various community organizations that focus on the issue of homelessness. Through this, and the wise insights of some really dedicated people, I have gained a sense for some of the reasons a person might end up on the street. It’s not as easy as “drugs”, or “alcohol”, or “laziness”, or even “choices”. For many, it’s a mental or emotional health issue. For others, it was a matter of having no choice; home was not a safe place. And for others, likely Mr. Williams, it’s a trans-generational issue; their grandparents were jobless and largely homeless, their parents were born into that state, and then they were too. It’s hard to break the cycle, and safety nets alone won’t fix it.

I usually keep a few loose bills in my pocket, but the moment I heard his polite petition, I knew I was caught in an awkward state; I only had Canadian money in my pocket, and a couple $20 US bills in my wallet safely tucked in my inside jacket pocket. I answered as kindly as I could; “all I have is a few Canadian dollars, if you want them, you can have them.” I lied. He started walking away. But then he turned and came back, and as if he didn’t hear or understand my explanation (or perhaps he didn’t believe it), he asked again, “please sir, can you help me?” I knew what the answer was – it was ‘yes’, of course I could help him. The real question to me was would I help him, or would I lie again? At the same moment, another business traveller a couple of parking spaces away yelled out, “hey! Quit bothering those people. Why don’t you get a job!”

In that moment, I realized I can be part of the continuing broken paradigm, where the beggars beg and the rest of us don’t have the energy to really understand, or I could slow down for a moment and see him as an individual, not all that different from me. “What’s your name?” I said, I as began the process of fishing out my wallet. “Mr. Williams”, he answered. “Mr. Williams” I said, “I’m sorry I lied.” I gave him twenty bucks, and then continued to load marketing material and a computer screen on a dolly I brought with me. He asked to help, but I told him I had it covered. He insisted, nearly begging me to accept his help. I was worried about the screen falling off the dolly, and said I’d prefer to do it myself. I hope he understood, but I realized afterward that my accepting his help would’ve been a bigger blessing to him than the money I gave him.

We, the manufacturers, the entrepreneurs, the business leaders and the workers – we are the true wealth generators of our society. It’s not Wall Street or Bay Street, or the government, it’s us. We also are the beginning of the solution – not the whole solution, but the start. We can’t cure society’s problems with our money, no matter how much we might make or give away. Where we need to be more generous however, is with our time, our caring, and our understanding. Mr. Williams might have been asking for a few dollars, but what he really needed was to matter to someone – in that morning, me. I don’t know what needs to be done to change his life, but I think spending a bit of time with him may have changed his day a bit – and who knows what happens from there. (I do know it changed my day – and who knows what happens from there.) Changes are needed in our society, but I think it starts with us, at a more personal level.

Thank you, Mr. Williams. I hope you are doing well.

Paul Hogendoorn is cofounder of FreePoint Technologies. “Measure. Analyze. Share.” (Don’t forget to share!) He can be reached at paulh@getfreepoint.com  or www.getfreepoint.com

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