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To give on the street? In cities, a daily calculus
What inspires Mirko Todorovic, who owns a tie and accessories shop at Penn Station, is a little different. He feels more like giving when the person isn’t asking. There’s a guy he’s seen for years, over on First Avenue on the East side, sitting near a garage. “He sits in a chair there, with all his stuff, and never asks for anything,” says Todorovic. “I’ve given him something about 20 times” — maybe two or three dollars.
There’s a common desire to help people who help themselves, says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “A lot of people think one shouldn’t give on the street because it’s enabling,” Roman says. “They’re afraid people will make a bad choice about what to do with the money.”
But Roman, like Donovan, would not advise people to avoid giving. “It’s a personal decision as to whether you want to help or not,” she says. “Most people, I think, make a decision based on how they feel. That’s what I do.”
Roman understands how some people may have been disappointed at reading of the complicated circumstances of the NYPD case. But she points out that most cases involving people living persistently on the streets are, well, complicated.
“People don’t generally live on the streets unless they have complicated problems,” Roman says. “The majority of people would enter some program until they got back on their feet. If it’s a chronic case, they have other problems too, like a disabling condition of some sort.”
But even if the shoeless man had complex circumstances, she points out, he still was sitting on the street with no shoes on, in the cold. “He wasn’t making the wisest decision — but he still needed help,” Roman says. “What are you going to do, interview him? Ask 90 questions?”
Roman sees the public’s response to the NYPD story as a need for simple, quick solutions.
“A lot of times we want the solutions to be simple — but they’re not,” she says. “Usually there’s a long story. And it takes some persistent help to get people to a place where they can be safe.”
And so she suggests giving to advocacy organizations, which she does herself. “I think that’s the longer-term answer,” she says. Adds Donovan, of the National Coalition for the Homeless: “Maybe this (NYPD story) will be something that causes people to say, ‘Hey, why don’t I give to the shelter this year?’”
But still there will be the spontaneous, daily calculations of people like Zimmer, the New York musician who favors giving to musicians like herself. She also tends to be generous, she says, “when I see someone with an obvious physical impairment.” If they look healthy and more able to work, she says, she’s less likely to give.
When reminded of the NYPD officer’s story, she shrugged and smiled. She said it hadn’t affected her calculations. It was just another odd story in the big city.
“You never know in New York what the real story is,” she said.
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this story.
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