Last night, while driving home, I saw a man in the median holding a cardboard sign which read "Homeless Veteran: Need Money, Please Help". I immediately though about a family that I encountered in Myanmar two months ago.
Since I travel extensively in the developing world I've grown accustomed to people asking for "donations". I usually give to those people who are obviously disabled in some way, for example mine victims in Cambodia, club footed people in India, and/or those in makeshift wheelchairs; because in most developing countries, services for these people is severely lacking.
Not knowing what to do, and since she wasn't asking me for anything, I looked at her children and then back at her, smiling as if to say...wow, your children are beautiful, then I motioned with my camera as if to say "can I take a photo?"...no reaction..... I bent down near the two children and using the screen on my digital camera, showed them a photo I had just taken of the vegetable seller just across the aisle. The children both smiled, as children do when they see something interesting and new. Next using my wide lens, I snapped a quick headshot of the two children and showed them... their faces lit up with smiles. With a bit of rapport established and some sign language, I communicated that we should go over to a colorful old truck that was parked just a few yards away. She and the children followed.
I made a photo of the three of them and then a few more photos of the kids standing in front of the truck. Then I reached down with both hands and lifted the little girl up and placed her on the seat of the truck. To my surprise and horror, she was light as a feather and as I lifted her I could feel every rib in her tiny little chest. I thought to myself, this child has got to get some food! After a few minutes of making and sharing pictures of the children, I smiled at the mother, folded my hands in the Asian "wai" meaning " thank you" and "I respect you". She looked back at me and in her eyes, I could once again see her terrible sense of desperation. Reaching into my pocket, I grabbed some Burmese Kyats and as I shook her hand to say goodbye, I transferred the money into her palm.
Since my encounter with this poor Burmese woman and her two children, whenever I see a homeless person with a sign here in the USA, I'm reminded of her and I wonder how she is doing.
No, I didn't give anything to the guy I saw last night, or others who hold signs and stand in the median here at home. I'm confident that they get enough to eat (and smoke and drink). It's those who are truly desperate that I wish we could do more to help.