Durham winter mornings are bitingly cold. I wonder if that’s why I gave the homeless man on Ninth Street some money. He looked up from the sidewalk as I walked down ninth street, just another big man bundled up in a bigger jacket. I couldn’t see much of his face, just a grizzled old beard and his eyes. A small glimpse of blue.

But as I got closer to him, I felt myself shrink. I was afraid, you see, that he would ask me money, and then pretend I had no cash. I grew up in a city where it was easy to become hardened to the homeless. When you walk daily past people after people, kneeling on street corners with clumsily-made signs, it begins to seem normal. Empathy slowly trickles away. Undeterred, the man called to me. “Miss” he said, “have some change?

I intended to stride on, as I have done so many times in the past. Instead, I surprise myself. I stop and open my wallet, pull out what’s on top. “Here,” I said awkwardly. We stared at each other for a moment. He nodded. Then it was over. We walked away. I haven’t seen him since.

I wondered about this incident for a while after it happened. Why, after adopting a flight-or-flight stance in the past, had I given him money? Why this time? Was a moment of altruism that could make me feel better? A guilty apology? A way to exit the situation? I tried to think of the last time I had donated money to any cause without being prodded, and to my dismay, I came up blank. I had nodded in class when the roots of homelessness had been deconstructed and agreed that it was a complicated issue that required action. Yet when it came down to the moment of reckoning, I had consistently turned away. I had found excuses for in inaction. I had found a way to live without feeling guilty.

There are the familiar arguments on why people don’t often donate money to pan-handlers. You don’t know where you’re money goes. It doesn’t help them find a job or be self-sustaining. Yet in spite of these arguments, which often lie on heresy, very few of us will go around the neighborhood with food packages and resolutions to help. There are many, of course, who do step up. Whether they run soup kitchens, like Durham’s Urban Ministries, or programs that help the unemployed find employment, like the group Community Empowerment Fund. A general consensus is that helping the homeless is a task that should be left to the experts. The truth may run deeper than that: leaving the job to others exonerates me from having to act. I can’t help – so why should I?

Perhaps this way of thinking is utilitarian, rational and comforting. It is still, for me, a sad way to live. To say that I cannot do anything to contribute to service is incorrect. I have simply chosen not to. It helps to be a poor college student. It helps to have that cushy fallback. Yet if I am honest, how much of it has to do with no money, and how much with the unwillingness to give up a caramel latte for the week? To exonerate myself in these moments when a human being implores me for some avenue of help is to act dishonorably and hypocritically. If I am to walk on, I must say I chose to.

Sometimes I am haunted by the memory of a cold night in Toronto, while walking on the streets. Even under four layers of clothing, I could not feel my bones. Ahead of me were two young men, heaving boxes of food and blankets on their shoulders. They were quick and methodical-they did not have the branding of a non-profit on their clothes. Street by street, they went, leaving little white packages for those shivering on the curb. I watched them for a while, admiring. What heroes! I wished I could do the same. And then I saw their faces and how they young they were, still in their teens. They were just two young boys who had bought some supplies. They had stopped the mentality of inaction.

There are now 758 homeless people in Durham County, according to the North Carolina Coalition for Homelessness. 108 of them are children. The compelling image of children on the streets only serves to disabuse the idea that all those without homes are responsible for their situation. A home is just a place, and places can crumble no matter where we live. As the months grow warmer, I think of the biting Toronto cold, and the two methodical men. I try to focus less on my helplessness, more on the small things I can do when confronted with people who are in bad situations. There exists an opportunity, in those moments, for something to happen. Some kindness, some change, some kind of recognition, at least, of the connection of human to human. If I will not give money, I can give time. If I will not give time, I can stop avoiding eyes. I can do something. Anything but nothing.

Isabella Kwai is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.