The Problem Is

Andrea Smith

© Copyright 2002 by Andrea Smith


Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

A trend is emerging. I do not know if it is peculiar to New Orleans or if it has spread everywhere, but homeless people are beginning to ask for credit cards instead of cash. They don’t simply walk up to you and ask “Will that be Visa or Mastercard?” but they do ask for your plastic with that kind of ease.

I first encountered this phenomenon aboard the St. Charles streetcar. The woman sitting in front of me, clearly aged before her time, turned around to face me. Above the noise of the clanking streetcar she pleaded for train fair. I did not see how she needed it; she was already aboard the streetcar. She must have read the puzzled look upon my face because she shook her head and said “Not for the streetcar, for Amtrak.”

“I don’t have any change.” I told her. Apart from the fact that I did not make a habit of giving away money upon demand, I truly did not have any change. I thought that settled the matter. Then her voice came at me above the din of the streetcar and the traffic outside our window. “That’s ok. I need more than change anyway.”

That stuck me as being sadly true, but I still was not inclined to hand over the $10 bill in my wallet. My objections had everything to do with discouraging drug abuse, so I lied, a perfectly acceptable course of action I thought, considering the circumstances. “I’m sorry. I don’t have cash either.” I held up my empty hands as if to show that I really did not have any money to give her.

“Well that’s all right,” she said. “You can use your credit card.” Her cloudy, gray eyes, probably once a pale blue, stared at me matter-of-factly.

“What?” I asked, more stunned than anything else. The noise of the clanking rails and clattering windows seemed to fade into the background as I met this woman’s gaze. Who was she? Her skin was weathered, almost paper-thin. She wore a stained, blue T-shirt that was beginning to fray at the collar. She could have been anyone, anyone who had encountered a bit of bad luck in life.

“You can use your credit card. Come with me to the Amtrak station and buy me a ticket.” The proposition seemed entirely reasonable to her.

“I don’t have a credit card.” I said flatly. I could feel the streetcar moving us along, steadily. I did not have a credit card but I did have a debit card, which probably would have satisfied her purposes, but that is beside the point: I wasn’t going to let her use it.

“Oh.” She quietly turned around, realizing that I was not going to be a source of income for her today and folded her arms in her lap.

I rode the rest of the line with her, all the way to the end, at Canal Street. As we passed the shops and streets of the Central Business District, I wondered to myself, what had this woman expected? I had no intention of getting off the streetcar early, walking with a complete stranger (even if she appeared to be harmless) and pull out my credit card to buy her something. Notwithstanding the fact that she could be involved in something illegal (fraud? drugs? prostitution?), I just did not think it wise to go on an unplanned excursion with a stranger who asked for my money.

What really had me troubled though was the implied assumption that underlined this woman’s request. Somehow, she believed that I, and others like me I suppose, could afford to go into debt on behalf of her and others like her. Although she may not have articulated this, her message to me was “You can carry the weight of my misfortune.” She thought that I could somehow “purchase” her burden and compensate for it later.

On some level, I wish that I were capable of taking on her burdens, capable of erasing that tired look from her face. For that matter, how I would welcome the opportunity to compensate for the misfortune and unhappiness that many homeless and otherwise marginalized people are plagued by. I think there are very few people in this country who would not help the less fortunate to the fullest extent possible if they believed that would end the problems that cause neediness in the first place.

Reality, however, is a different story. Even though many of us feel sorry for the street population, most of us do not believe that we, as a society, can truly solve the problems of poverty and homelessness. That is not to say that we do not make efforts to address the issue. We often empty our pockets of change for those who ask if we have anything to spare. At Christmas and Thanksgiving, many of us take the time to volunteer at missions and shelters. People like myself often give their leftovers from a night of fine dining to seemingly hungry folk on the street. And there are even those people who spend a good amount of their time working or volunteering for organizations that are devoted to dealing with people who in one way or another need help with basic sustenance. Despite all of that, however, people in this country still go to bed hungry every night, and untold numbers call the street home. I would be hard pressed to find even one individual who believed that we could entirely eradicate this problem and perhaps even harder pressed to find one individual who did not wish that we could.

I wanted to help that woman I met on the streetcar. Whether or not she was trying to scam me, she definitely needed help. Had some sad twist of fate, a divorce or mental illness, pushed her into this position, or had she been raised to believe that the best she could do was hustle her way through life? Either way, I thought, this woman had ended up on the losing end of life. I could see it in her face. That old saying “there but for the grace of God go I” quietly entered my thoughts.

Yes, I wanted to help that woman, but how could I carry the weight of her misfortune? Buying her an Amtrak ticket (on my credit card no less) was not the answer. Where would that train have taken her? Certainly not where she needed to go. She merely would have gone on to the next way station, looking for another stranger to charge her way out of her destitute state. So what could I have offered this woman that would have been of real value? My pity, although it would have been sincere, would have done nothing to satisfy her, and even less to help her. My regrets were sincere as well, but they too did nothing to alleviate her situation. What I wanted to offer her was my strength, my faith, my fortitude, the things I had received from my family over the years. I wanted to take her hand, walk with her off of the streetcar, and show her a better way of life. I wished that, like my credit card she so yearned to use, I could carry the weight of her burden until she could pay her own way through life.

Even credit cards have their limits. Nothing can be charged indefinitely. At some point, all debts must be paid. I do believe that, as a society, we must, to a degree, hold ourselves responsible for what happens to our brothers and our sisters. Nonetheless, handing over our credit cards to homeless people will not solve the problem. The problem is, I do not know what will.

Andrea Smith is a writer, photographer and motivational speaker.  She writes about issues relating to humanity, spirituality, and self-help. 

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