Lessons Learned from NOT Feeding the Homeless

Ok, let’s start off on the right foot. I am not going around like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld denying people from having lunch. In fact, I encourage you to help out those in need. These are lessons that have befallen me in my valiantly failed efforts in giving a homeless guy tacos.

On a cold-for-Florida kind of morning, I went for an early walk by the harbor in the affluent Coconut Grove in Miami. The brisk air brought life to my sleepy face. I saw a guy hunched over a mini-shopping car heading towards a tree stump. He laid down a piece of dirty cardboard like a tablecloth. I could immediately tell this feast was going to suck. He pulled a small scaly fish out of a bucket and started picking at it with a fork. Seeing a guy go to these lengths to put food in his belly resonated because this guy’s last resort wasn’t to starve to death — it was to eat. He went to lengths the average person wouldn’t have considered with ease. Following my trend of ruining people’s low carb diets, I went to the closest taco joint and bought three tacos.

I almost missed him as he was slowly pushing his now out-of-stock bucket in his buggy. “Hey man, I walked by and thought you might want some tacos,” I sounded like an estranged father trying to rebuild a relationship with his teenage son. I hoped my free food would compensate for my ungainly approach. The man looked at my extended tray, and then slowly at me. We held eye contact for what I thought was pure human connection before he burst out, “I can’t eat that shit! I ain’t got no teeth!” He flashed a toothless grin — a situation I had not anticipated.

Most times involving tacos are either in happy drunk elation, or very, very sad drunk elation. My brain starting running to alternatives. Not willing to go the distance of a mama-bird approach, I stood in silence. “I appreciate it though! Give them to one of them,” he motioned to a general crowd of speedwalking silicon-based Miami moms, guys on break in suits, families, and various other characters. Before I noticed, he and his small cart left me in his dust. I awkwardly stood there with a plastic tray of tacos like a gawky, nervous waiter who had wandered too far astray on his first day.

I avoided the general populace and went for the homeless guy sleeping next to his lawn chair and open book. My “Hey”s and “Yo”s were met with snoring. Then it clicked: What’s the difference between him seeing me give him tacos or leave them there anonymously? For all I know he didn’t have any teeth either and fed my tacos to ducks. Why did I feel like I deserved a thank you? Was my self-satisfaction worth it? It made me think about how many times in my life someone left me tacos to unknowingly wake up with. Metaphorical tacos — one rarely forgets waking up next to real tacos. On my walk back I channeled my contemplative mood to write down these:

  1. No one is going to help you unless you’re helping yourself. We have a psychological propensity to try to help those who are helping themselves. We inherently want our time and money spent effectively, so seeing someone with an initiative sparks a common emotion. My actual stream of consciousness was this: “Wow. Dude is actually going to eat that fish. Can’t knock the hustle though. You don’t have to ask for help, do it on your own. I respect that. I’m going to get him something decent to eat”
  2. The flaw in the “But if I help someone and didn’t tell anyone about it, did it even happen?” thinking is that you’re A. automatically adjusting your thinking for public validation and B. stunting the integrity gained after you do something for the sake of doing it. I’ve met people with more pictures volunteering at animal shelters that can count the number of actual days they spent volunteering on one hand. I’ve met people who have organized entire homeless feeding programs that have kept it a better secret than a political love affair. If you’re going to give, give. Don’t try to buy yourself a good mood.
  3. Set a low personal burn rate. Too many people need too much to be happy. Cut out extravagance and focus on personal substance. Take some time to practice poverty and you won’t fear losing everything.
  4. People are people. We, myself included, often categorize the homeless exactly like that — “the homeless”. As interchangeable, downtrodden folks eager for your car’s sticky quarters. Mentally it’s easier to categorize people and reflect your general feelings for that group on the individual. Humanity is sacrificed for the convenience of generalizations and stereotypes. Life isn’t game of Sims, everyone’s got a story.
  5. Of course, we all want to do good (unless you’re inherently some kind of anarchistic sociopath), but we often manipulate that drive for the sake of vanity. I’m split on this subject: I can’t say I’m not tired of seeing selfies of a clean-cut, well groomed person next to a disheveled, confused homeless guy with a tags like #dobetter #changesomeoneslife #gooddeeddone #gandhi #lit. Building up your reputation on someone’s misfortunes is laughably self-serving, but then again the power of social media to raise awareness and motivate others shouldn’t be overlooked. There is a difference between channeling your own vanity through the vehicle of philanthropy and genuinely trying to raise awareness to make a difference in the world.

Maybe I learned something. Maybe I didn’t. Or maybe I have a kindred spirit among people with missing teeth.

About the author: Alex Moskov is a serial entrepreneur and cereal destroyer. He is a self-improvement junkie and a master of self deprecating humor. He is also very humble. More humble than you are. Probably in the Top 5 Humble People Under 30 in the game right now. In his arsenal of skills and interests, he also writes. And it’s not always in third person describing himself. Like this.

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