"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." -Plato
One thing I have observed while trying to practice compassion is that it gets easier the more you do it. While I am periodically asked for change and usually don't carry any, the last time someone approached me, I was on my way into the grocery store and told him that if he would be in the area, I would bring him something back out. Sure enough, he was waiting outside and took the sandwich I had bought him. Several others then made their way towards me as I loaded my car.
For a time, I kept ziploc bags filled with snacks in my car in the event that someone asked. When I offered them I was refused. Maybe it was patronizing to offer an adult a bag of snacks better suited for the playground. I'm not sure because I've never had to beg for food.
While I have heard many people say it's a poor idea to give money because it might end up doing more harm than good (for drugs or alcohol), it seems to me that the outcome is not my responsibility as much as simply being willing to help someone who asks for it. A dollar or two won't make a tremendous difference to me financially but it might to the person having a warm coffee on a cold winter day.
The following story is shared from Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi:
"I well remember the growing sense of frustration and annoyance at the homeless people I often found outside my apartment steps when I lived in San Francisco. Frequently they urinated in the entryways or left the steps littered with bottles and stacks of filthy garbage. I felt threatened by being asked for money and repulsed by the smell of unwashed bodies. After a while I became very fearful of looking a homeless person in the eye or even acknowledging a friendly hello. Then one morning I came upon a sad old man sitting on the steps who asked me for some money. I forced myself to take a good look at him and to meet his gaze and then reflexively walked away. But as I walked away, I could not shake the thought that this man looked like my father. Perhaps he was someone else's father. Perhaps he had been my father in a past life. Without thinking, I walked back to the steps and emptied my change purse in front of his widening eyes. After that day, I decided to work one night a week at a homeless shelter, as much to relieve my own sense of impotence as to help others."
Suffering is something that all human beings share, regardless of where we come from. When we shift the focus from ourselves to thinking about others as having similar hopes, dreams, fear and worries, we begin to see the sameness and even the goodness in others rather than the separateness.