The sight of homeless people and panhandlers often fills me with ambivalence.
I can on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand my mind into a frenzy. On one hand, giving this person money could be enabling his unhealthy lifestyle. On the other hand, he is clearly in need right now, and maybe some quarters would help. On the other hand, maybe his own choices got him there — should I reward those choices with my own hard-earned cash? On the other hand, I am a Christian and I need to love my poor brothers as Jesus would. On the other hand, Jesus did say, “The poor you will always have with you . . .” so, really, maybe it’s hopeless. On the other hand, this person is shivering, or wet, and my heart aches to help — one day, that could be me. Wouldn’t I want help? On the other hand, he could use this money to go buy drugs, he could be lying, he could be treating begging as if it were his job, and in that case, he needs to get a real job, one that doesn’t involve jingling a cup.
You see? Ambivalence.
This confusion is why I was grateful when Pastor Denise Roberts, at Queen Anne United Methodist Church, led us in a recent class called, “Servant or Sucker?” (Central to the class was this video by Beth Templeton.)
I learned that all of my conflicting emotions were normal. I learned that I wasn’t stingy or cold-hearted for feeling hesitant about giving. Nearly everyone has stories about when our lives intersected with those in need, particularly anyone who rides the downtown Seattle bus. Some of us have even been in need ourselves at some point.
This is an apt time to have this discussion: the U.S. official poverty rate hovers around 14 percent, with 43.6 million people living in poverty, according to a Sept. 16 report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
I’ve compiled the 10 most valuable lessons I learned from this five-week class. The list itself is my creation, based on content from the video and what I learned from our class discussions.
1. There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people. Beyond some general causes, such as mental illness, substance abuse and economic turbulence, the specific reason any person ends up on the street can vary widely. When you’re approached by a beggar out of the blue, you don’t have any of the facts about the person’s situation — and thus, you’re not in a position to know what the person truly needs. We also learned that a person’s shoes can be an indicator of how hard up he or she is at that moment — nice shoes means not that hard up.
2. Begging and homelessness are two different things. I already knew this from my former life as a reporter, when I wrote an article on this very topic, because it intrigued me so. But it’s important to remember that not every homeless person begs, and not everyone asking for money is sleeping outside at night.
3. Why do people beg? Because it works. You would think that a class full of relatively smart, earnest people would know this. But, I think that learning this fact was an “aha” moment for a lot of us. We learned that panhandling can produce up to $30 an hour — not too shabby when the federal minimum wage is $7.25.
4. The word “no” is an equally caring or compassionate response. What? How can saying “no” to someone be compassionate? Well, it goes back to point one, in that we don’t know what a person needs most right now. It might be $2. It might also be job training, substance abuse counseling or — nothing. How can it be nothing? See next point.
5. For real change to occur in someone’s life, he or she has to want it. The video portrayed the story a middle class office worker who befriended a couple who lived under a bridge. The office worker began to treasure her new friends, and wanted to help them. She got them into a motel, helped the woman in need find work and provided food to the couple as she helped them to turn their life around. In the end, her efforts did not succeed — the couple went back to their old life under the bridge. The middle class woman had to accept — though you could tell that she really hadn’t accepted it yet — that maybe the couple is better off homeless, that transiency was the life that made the most sense for them.
6. Different social classes have different perceptions of life, success and wealth. Of course, you run into trouble with any type of generalization, but, I found these differences to be at least worthy of discussion.
The poor value entertainment and relationships. Life is short and hard, and thus, one should get it while the gettin’s good. Money is meant to be spent, and a surplus in funds this month means that one gets to live the good life as long as it lasts. Why think about January rent in November? January will worry about itself. Times are hard and days seem long. “A long time” can mean a couple of months.
The middle class value hard work. This is a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality. Food and shelter come from hard work, and thus, the middle class wants to reward hard work. They save up, plan ahead and think longer term. They think of money in terms of paying bills, saving up for a vacation, a home, or a car. Each day isn’t as turbulent, and thus, time doesn’t seem as long as it does to the poor.
The rich value social networks. Once basic needs are met and then some, people start to value who they know and which social networks are most likely to help them in the future. They think of money in terms of net worth. They think of time in terms of generations and legacy.
7. When someone approaches you for money, think ABC. Acknowledge that the person has a problem. “I can see that you need help.” Don’t believe everything you hear. The story that starts out, “I just need $3 for gas to get to work,” or “I’m in a rehab program and I need . . .” is common and, many times, untrue. The begging person is trying to appeal to your values of hard work and bootstrap-pulling! Compassion doesn’t mean giving in to a person’s every want and need.
8. Follow these three mantras of giving. a) Do not do for somebody something that they can do themselves. There’s no empowerment in that. b) Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency in mine. c) You must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Thus, it’s OK to know the score and know the scams, and still be compassionate.
9. Learn the available resources in your community, and support them. If you’re donating to a service organization, or your church, you won’t be as overcome with guilt at the sight of someone in need. If someone approaches you for money, you can say with honesty, “I don’t give to people on the street. However, I do support ____.” Do not say to someone, “I can’t,” or “I’m sorry” — rather, direct the person to where he or she can get help. Finish with, “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” and, “I’m glad I got to connect with you.”
10. Social service agencies and government have had to pick up the slack as churches and soup kitchens have dwindled. I, personally, came to the realization that homelessness and poverty, as Jesus said, will always be with us. It won’t end, so long as there are people. As a society, we can manage it, we can help where we can, we can even reduce it, but we won’t cure it. Isn’t that thought sort of liberating and refreshing? To try to end homelessness would mean a society where everyone was put into the place that we have prescribed for them, it would mean that people who prefer the transient lifestyle and the freedoms of it would not be free to live as they choose. It’s an intriguing thought. (If this thought intrigues you too, I recommend reading the memoir, The Glass Castle.)
Ok, so now what?
And it means that we should reach out to the homeless man who sleeps on our front porch.
We don’t know much about him, but in the next few weeks, we will try to reach out to him, to ask him what he needs — if anything — and to find out his story. Please stay tuned.
In the meantime, this is a photo of the note that he left on the front porch of our church: