At an earlier point in life it was simple. If a homeless person asked me for money, I gave it. It seemed like the ‘Christian’ thing to do. Plus, I felt like I was being a holy type guy in giving whenever asked.
Then when I was about nineteen, I was having lunch at a restaurant where our table was next to a side walk on a fairly busy city street. A lady approached me – she didn’t seem to completely fit the homeless bill – she didn’t have the whole bags in the shopping cart thing going on with the chimney soot on the cheeks. She just seemed like a lady that fell on some hard times.
“Excuse me”, she asked, “My daughter lives up in San Francisco, and I just need five more dollars for the bus fair to get up there and see her…”
She rambled on for a while about not seeing her in weeks because she couldn’t get the cash together because she got laid off and so she came to San Diego for work and blah, blah, blah. I asked her a number of detailed questions about her daughter’s name, who she was staying with, why she wasn’t living with her and whatever else I could think of. Her answers where detailed and quick in response so I decide she wasn’t lying. I checked my wallet and all I had was two twenties which for me with my first job out of high school, was about a day’s pay. I gave her the $40. She was tearfully overjoyed and skipped off to catch the next bus.
Seconds after she left, our waitress came out and asked, “Was she bothering you?”
“No, I just gave her a few bucks for the bus.”
“Oh, she’s here all the time asking people for money.”
I was shocked. “What? She told me she was from San Francisco and needed to get back up there to see her daughter.”
“Ahh, no. She’s a drug addict. She’s here all the time…”
No wonder she was overjoyed, I just set her up with a whole night of some serious tweaking. Those were tears of joy at the thought of the buzz that awaited.
That was it. I was done. No more giving to homeless people.
So after a few years of a hardline ‘no-giving’ policy, I started to feel a bit guilty, realizing I was acting out of a personal offense. So I started giving occasionally, always a bit skeptical and with a lot of questions. I wasn’t going to be scammed again but I didn’t want to withhold from those truly in need either.
Then after awhile my random benevolence policy started to feel a bit, well, random. So my giving pendulum swung back again and I started back with the ‘always give’ policy. But this time it wasn’t in an ambiguous Christianese haze. No, this time I was taking Christ’s words literally where he said, “Give to everyone who asks of you”. OK then. I will. And if I get asked by a drug addict then so be it. What they use it for is on their own head.
For years I had zero interest in politics aside from my nuclear arms race obsession when I was eleven. But when the whole Bush v. Gore fiasco went down I was drawn in and hooked. I devoured all things political both national and international, past and present.
One thing that came from my political obsession was the realization how ridiculously good we have it here in the U.S. and how ridiculously bad others have it most everywhere else. Here in the U.S. we are for the most part only limited by what we do or don’t do. We are not limited by who we are –race, religion, family or whatever.
In the U.S. we have endless choices. In most of the world they have few to none.
In Christ’s day the beggar had few to no choices. They were screwed. Cast out. On the periphery of society with no way to change. So when a beggar asked for money, that was the only way he would get it. He couldn’t just go ‘get a job’. And the same goes for many underdeveloped parts of the world today.
But here? We have A.A. We have N.A. Homeless shelters, rehab programs, drug treatment centers, scholarships, loan programs, job training programs; it’s endless.
So when somebody asks me for money I have to ask- am I really helping them? Or am I just prolonging their unhealthy state of dependence? Am I giving them a fish for a day rather than teaching them to fish?
What I know I can’t do is judge. “Just get a job you lazy bum…” does not ring with the love of God. I have no idea what happened to this person in life. I have no idea of the trauma or abuse they endured leaving them crippled in mind and spirit.
But as far as helping them – is giving them money really helping or is it actually hurting?
In India there is a group of people called the Dalits who are at the bottom end of the caste system. For them, there is no way out and no way up.
In Egypt the Copts are considered second-class; they cannot marry outside of their community. They are oppressed by their society and persecuted daily.
In the U.S. it has been reported that many of those folks by the freeway with the ‘Please Help’ signs make thousands of dollars.
What I’m getting at is when I look at real destitution in the rest of world I find I don’t have a whole lot of pity for a homeless person in sunny San Diego where I know there is help available; if they want it and if they go get it. So I give to parts of the world where I know they literally have no way out.
And with the homeless folks down the street, I’m currently back to a hardline no-give policy. But, you know, with a non-judgmental heart of course.
But honestly, I can’t say I feel 100% comfortable in my current state.
I guess that’s why it’s something I wrestle with.
Update: I would throw money at this guy though…