She sits crossed-legged on the floor of the DC subway station not every day—probably two or three times a week—but always with this woeful expression painted across her face. She’s exhausted, you can tell, but it might be something else too. Maybe she’s strung out or trying to get strung out, maybe she’s malnourished, maybe life has just beaten the spirit out of her eyes and made her skin seem like it itself is too downtrodden to stay in position. She holds a sign scrawled across a small piece of cardboard that I’ve never really read.
That’s largely because she has two young girls, ostensibly her daughters, begging passersby for money. It is heart-wrenching and I go through this internal moral conflict every time I see them.
When they first started posting up by the entrance to the Metro, I would give them change if I had it. I’m one of those people who use a debit card to buy something as small as a 99 cent candy bar at the 7-Eleven, so I usually don’t have more than a few random quarters and nickels in my wallet. DC is plentiful with homeless people begging at intersections, bus stops, and street corners, so between them and the folks hustling for their respective charities and pleading for donations, my silver gets spread pretty thin across the city.
I admittedly suffer from a bleeding heart and have the hardest time packing away my sympathy. As a result, I am a prime, grade A target for every hustler and panhandler in the area. But this mother-and-child outfit sticks out in my mind.
I don’t know the circumstances of this woman’s life. Clearly, I’ve never taken the time to have a conversation with her—I’ve always been running either to the office or away from it to get home—and I’m sure, as detached as she looks, she wouldn’t want to much be bothered with the investigative probing of a stranger anyway. But I do put myself in her situation and wonder if I would be willing to allow my children, especially my daughters, to hustle money from the flurry of anonymous people walking by.
Does it teach them how to be survivors or educate them about the wages of struggle? What will they grow up to be like? What kind of ethics and values will they embrace? Will they think this is the norm?
I’m not judging her. At least I don’t think I am. I’ve never been homeless or so down and out that I’ve had to depend on the charity of people I don’t know to feed my child, thank God. I’m definitely grateful for that. But I’m silently analyzing her and her decision—and those of mothers like her—to put their children on the frontlines and volunteer them for the job. It’s so hard to say no to those big, pleading eyes and little voices asking for money I don’t have. I suspect that’s why they’re the ones doing the asking.
Today, I’m challenging myself to talk to her the next time I see her, if only to ask if there’s anything I can offer besides dropping a few coins in the palms of her girls’ hands. There’s got to be something more I can do, mother to mother.
Are you swayed or appalled by children panhandling with their parents?
Image via Robert Tewart/Flickr