I was an enabler.
Until now, Cynthia is the only other person who knows how I was suckered into giving a transient/homeless couple $80 and how - 24 hours later - I realized I had been duped. And as such, I contributed to the homeless problem in a fairly big way.
It was back in June. I had just come out of a meeting when a young couple was walking down the street in 100-degree heat. The young woman was obviously very pregnant. She didn't look very comfortable. They stopped me and asked if I knew the way to a local church. I said I did and then did something that was out of character for me - I offered them a ride.
In the short 14-block ride, I heard their story. They were from Iowa where they had lost everything in a fire and were hitchhiking to Lathrop where his mother had moved. They were unsuccessful at reaching her on their cellphone and she was leery of spending another night sleeping along the Tidewater tracks. She did all the talking, noting that her boyfriend was embarrassed about having to ask people for help.
When we arrived at the church they thanked me but I said I'd wait to make sure they found the office they were looking for. When they came out, she said she was informed that they were probably trying to find St. Vincent de Paul's since the local church didn't have an emergency help service.
I gave them a ride there. Again, I waited. They came out in a few minutes noting they couldn't be helped because they couldn't produce identification or a driver's license.
My level of sympathy was acting like an endorphin.
I offered to take them to Applebee's, get them situated, and I'd pay for their meal in advance before leaving them. They said that was way too much but they'd appreciate Jack-in-the-Box. I inquired about where they were going to sleep that night - the streets are no place for a pregnant woman - and they said they would keep trying to reach his mom. So I gave them $20 when I dropped them off as well as my cell number in case they couldn't reach his mom.
She said thanks but she was sure they'd be fine.
A few hours later, I got a call. They still couldn't reach his mother and were desperate.
I figured I had it lucky and could probably spare a few dollars, so when I met them outside a liquor store I offered to pay for a room at a motel. Long story short, the clerk correctly pointed out she could not rent the room to me unless I was staying there or I agreed to take full responsibility for all damages. I decided against it. I wasn't that far gone.
But I still felt guilt about not being in their situation. So after walking back across the street to the liquor store, I decided to give them $60.
There they were chatting with a group of other four homeless in a conversation that was anything but civil although it wasn't heated.
She thanked me profusely as I left.
The next day I saw her with another homeless man I hadn't seen before. She was waving a sign saying their car broke down and they were stranded.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. The story of the house burning down and hitchhiking across country was a ruse. There was no mother-in-law in Lathrop, but if there was she was the most ruthless and uncaring in-law ever to let a daughter-in-law who looked like she was ready to pop to walk around in the heat and sleep on the streets if that is indeed what she was doing.
I shared the story with Cynthia, angry that I had been so stupid.
Two days later, the pregnant homeless lady called. I let it go to voicemail. She said they were still trying to connect with his mother. Right. And there's not a sucker born every minute as banker David Bannum once said of P.T. Barnum's ability to get money from the gullible.
I have since stopped giving loose change or dollar bills when I am panhandled. It has left me with more money in my pocket after going to the gas station.
It hasn't stopped me from giving. I still help people I know are struggling to make ends meet. I also still give to organizations that help struggling people.
But I am no longer contributing to the problem.
The late Frances Bynum, arguably the closest person to a saint I've ever had the honor of knowing, ran a charity group for 20-plus years helping area poor, those stranded passing through and the homeless with food, clothing, gas money and even shelter.
But she had a steadfast rule and she was vilified by some that sought help for enforcing it. She cross-referenced everyone who came through the door to make sure they weren't gaming the system.
Real charity involves not enabling.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.