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Can I help the handyman who sleeps on a cot?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 20, 2009

This guy in our neighborhood has it rough, but I need to maintain clear boundaries


Dear Cary,

A neighbor of mine needs help. He is effectively homeless, although I think he might have a cot of some sort in another neighbor’s garage. He works as a handyman around the neighborhood, including doing yard work for my family when we need it.

He also sometimes needs money immediately. In the past he has offered to sell us something of little value (which we refused), although recently he asked for $20 and insisted he could pay us back the next day (which he did). A few days ago he and I discussed his coming by to clean out our gutters and we agreed on a price. Last night he stopped by to ask if he could have a $10 advance, which I turned down because I did not have any cash on me.

He is also sometimes late or a no-show (like today) for the appointed time to work. He doesn’t have a phone so I can’t contact him when this happens. I am not a hard-ass when it comes to schedules but I can’t let the dog out when I expect him. I have tried in the past to leave a note for him if he was late and I needed to leave for some reason, but I believe he might be illiterate.

I really want to help him, and that feeling scares me. I believe he has some history of substance abuse and that he might not be in recovery now, in part because until about seven years ago most of my relationships were codependent ones with substance abusers. I recognize the feelings of being pulled in that direction with him.
I try really hard to make my exchanges with him about business. I have established boundaries for our transactions and I try to treat him as I would any contractor, although I sometimes pay him more than his services are worth. But I feel pulled to continue lending him money when he needs it, which I would never do with a contractor. I also would probably terminate a relationship with a contractor who is so often a no-show and so hard to communicate with.

I sometimes think about doing something substantial to get him on the right footing, like giving him a no-interest loan to buy a new lawn mower or even just giving him a small stipend to water our lawn twice a week. I think about looking for an organization that is designed to help him. I also consider the possibility of explaining to him how to manage his money and time better myself. I don’t do any of this because I fear that I’ll end up being an enabler again.

My question is: How do I know the right thing to do? How do I know when it is OK to help someone like him in a way that won’t pull me into the kind of fucked-up involvements I had in the past? Is there anything I can do to help this person beyond just paying him for the jobs he shows up to do?

Thanks,

A Former Enabler

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Dear Former Enabler,

I pay attention to coincidence. The first two letters I received this morning concerned the chaotic lives of others and our perceived obligations to them, how we can help and yet avoid entanglement. So I am going to trust that there is some sense in following this.

Here’s how I see it. There’s this guy in your neighborhood. He’s kind of a handyman. He kind of lives somewhere but not always. He’s not all that dependable but he’s around. He can clean out your gutters and mow your lawn and sometimes he asks for money and sometimes pays it back. He can’t really put a long-term plan together and carry it out. But he’s around. Sometimes you think, wow, ought to do something about that guy. Ought to fix him.

That’s where you get into trouble, right? You think, Oh, if I do this for him, then …
Forget the then part. Just do things and let it go. Transactions with him may be “wavy.” They’re not clean and straight and to the penny. His deal is a wavy thing. Times are approximate. Stuff gets done sort of and sometimes it doesn’t get done or it’s confusing or surprising and sometimes you have to redo it but sometimes he’ll hit his stride and outdo himself and it’s amazing. Maybe it’s something you didn’t even want done but it’s still amazing! Something will come over a guy like that in the course of building a gate and it’ll turn out to be the best gate on the block … except maybe it has this one hinge that’s crooked where his mind wandered. He was thinking — as he does from time to time — about why his life didn’t turn out just a little more together, with some money in the bank, a dependable car, something to look forward to and something to fall back on. He’s still scuffling for a dollar. He’ll get by. But he doesn’t have that comfort thing. He’s got a cot in somebody’s garage … and as he is thinking of these things he mismeasures for the hinge and it goes on crooked because it’s getting late in the day and he’s tired and he doesn’t want to start over.

To what extent are we responsible for others? This guy is not a social experiment, he is a member of your community. Do you give this guy respect, do you regard him not as a problem to be solved but as a member of your community, do you respect the stubbornly incommensurate facts of his existence?

A guy with a cot in somebody’s garage may be sad to some. Maybe somebody will get him a room in a house. Then for a while he’ll be a guy with a room in a house. Then maybe he won’t have the room in a house anymore. Some people will say, “Things didn’t work out,” or “Things changed.” They’ll say he’s a guy with a cot in a garage and he had a room in a house for a while but now he’s just got that cot in the garage but he’ll mow your lawn or do some painting, just be careful he doesn’t let the dogs out because he’s not always paying attention, and if you lend him money he’ll usually pay you back but maybe not always but it’s never that much money … but last week he showed up at the house kind of late at night and maybe he’d been drinking but we couldn’t smell anything but he wanted $10 but I didn’t have $10 so I sent him away and I probably should have, like, told him that he shouldn’t be just dropping in on us at almost 10 o’clock at night asking for money but I felt sorry for him and maybe he was hungry but we didn’t want to ask him in, we were getting ready for bed.

People will say he does “inappropriate things.” How bad is “inappropriate”? He’s a guy with a cot in somebody’s garage.

You are on the right track. You know the territory. You have the tools and the understanding to avoid being sucked into this guy’s life. Just do what you’re doing. Set boundaries and be clear about what you’re willing to lose. Don’t wait around for him longer than you want to. If he shows up late and you’ve left already, well, that’s the way it goes. Consider anything you lend to him a gift. Be ready to let it go, whatever your intentions are for it. If he should lose what you give him or sell it for cash, consider it a gift to him.

Give him things but do not give him things with strings attached. It’s the strings that are the problem. If you are giving with strings attached, then you are letting yourself in for disappointment. Give because you want to give, and are willing to give, and have the money to give.

The man with a cot in somebody’s garage stirs many things in us. You wonder: Does he know he stirs all this stuff up in us? Does he know? Is he manipulating us? To what extent?

I have seen firsthand down South how the privileged and the dispossessed who have lived shoulder to shoulder for so many generations manipulate each other and jockey for position to the very limits of their assigned roles. I have observed firsthand the veiled and coded power struggles between still-privileged semi-rural ex-plantation-owner upper-class whites and still-somewhat-indentured blacks living marginal lives of casually enforced servitude. I have seen this. It is of course gravely rooted in political wrongs not just in the past but in the present, but each case is also a personal story of human beings working out what is acceptable and what can they get away with and what can they bear within the confines of their fate. It is people playing the hand they have been dealt. Each thinks about outsmarting the other. They spend decades outsmarting each other. I have seen this with my own eyes and know that it is not simple. It may look simple from outside but it is not simple if you live there. If you go there and think, I am going to fix this situation by giving this man a no-interest loan to buy a lawn mower and start a stable lawn-care business … woe betide you.

You seem to know this. I sense I am just reinforcing what you already know. So use your instincts, and use what you know, and you will be fine.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

One thought on “Can I help the handyman who sleeps on a cot?”

  1. There is such a fine line between “helping someone out” and trying to “fix” a person percieved as “broken.” Dangerous territory, as the “helper” can end up being taken advantage of, and the “helped” person can (often rightly) resent being treated as the “lesser” person in the relationship. No one enjoys being treated like a charity case or a “special project.”

    Boundaries are essential for both parites, because both must maintain their dignity.

    I say, be supportive where appropriate, and only up to a limit where you are personally and financially comfortable. Pay him for the small jobs he does (if indeed they are actually done to an acceptable level) but don’t give loans. I’d also refrain from giving much in the way of advice to a guy like that, because he has probably heard it all before and I suspect that he is not very receptive to “helpful suggestions.”

    Sometimes, we just can’t understand why a person is/acts/lives a certain way, or why they seem to make the same kinds of choices/mistakes over and over again, leading them into these “sad” situations, so we have to decide whether we accept them–as they are–or we don’t accept them in our lives. But don’t try to fix or change another person, no matter how “damaged” they may appear to be.

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