A little boy is learning to ride his bike in an affluent Connecticut shopping center because his parents don’t have jobs and panhandle to make ends meet.
Standing at the precipice of desperation, Donna (not her real name) swallows her pride and takes out her tattered cardboard sign, hoping motorists will help her. She’s staggered by the kindness of strangers, who give her gift cards for groceries or take her kids to Walmart to buy clothes. She endures cruelty too. People going by in SUVs taunt her to get a job or hurl quarters. She still has a mark on her arm from one that hit her last week.
“I hate doing this, it’s embarrassing, but I’d do anything for my kids,” Donna says. I ask if she knows about food pantries and she nods, but says they don’t supply staples like milk. She also needs gas for her car and money for her $350/week motel room in East Lyme, CT. She says it’s hard to save money when you’re shelling out $1,400 per month in rent.
It wasn’t always this way. Donna was a nurse for nearly 20 years, but stopped after the trauma of losing a patient. Her live-in boyfriend was a machine operator making $50,000 per year, but went on disability due to epileptic seizures. It didn’t help when he went to prison last December, leaving Donna with two kids ages 9 and 4 and no means of support.
She turned to panhandling on Dec. 4, 2016. She says cops in certain towns are more lenient than others, and some have ordinances prohibiting it. She has one kind sergeant on her side in Guilford, CT., who tells his officers to let her be.
Donna and her boyfriend alternate days, leaving one of them to watch their 4-year-old son. Right now, he’s learning to ride with one training wheel. He had a snappy balloon affixed to the handlebars today until it popped, but he was still smiling. He asked my name, showed me his bike. He has the prettiest brown eyes and a buzzcut.
Like Donna, her boyfriend hates panhandling, saying it’s humiliating. He questions my motives for telling their story, saying most reporters want to make people look bad. He says he’s already embarrassed enough, but notes “it’s better than selling drugs or stealing.”
He’s right about that. And that’s not my goal. I just think every kid deserves shelter, food and a safe place to ride their bike. Maybe he’ll get it. Donna just landed a job at a supermarket and wants to find an apartment to escape their motel room. I hope she gets it and their luck changes.