20 November, 2007

A question for the likes of us

I received this note from a friend yesterday:

What is your take on people who ask for money? I have run into several, and each time I am unsure how to respond. Am I contributing to some cyclical problem if I give them money? Am I heartless if I politely refuse?

Dear Friend,
This issue is one that plagues every person (with a conscience) who lives in a place connected to poverty. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer...all I can do is talk about what I know statistically and what has worked in my own life.

Take, for example, the story of a lady I'll call Susan. I have seen her standing just east of the North & Clybourn Bus Stop. Usually, she has a small toddler with her...one of supposedly 3 although I've only seen two. She asks passersby for "a quarter, twenty-five cents for my child." You see runny noses, charming eyes and in the face of such human need, you would have to be a sociopath to remain unmoved. Yet, consider this: what, in reality would twenty-five cents do for this child? 'Practically nothing' is the quick response. This is the perennial paradox: there is little that you can do as a passerby to improve the lives of people asking for money, yet they continue to ask. Cynically (and realistically - unfortunately) there is a very high amount of substance abuse among homeless people. Not everyone is panhandling for their next fix, but it is a high statistical probability. Given this reasoning, it is logical to refrain from giving money (specifically) to people who ask. The twist appears when we consider the words of Jesus:

"Give to any who ask you."

That's rather specific, and it goes directly against our logical notions of efficiency. We do not own our money, but we are called to be good stewards. I take this whole thing to mean that I am expected to treat the money as God's, and that with this money, I want to do no harm.

Do no harm.

I argue that giving money to homeless people on the street, anonymous figures, without a relationship is detrimental to them. It follows a flow similar to flaws I see with anonymous witnessing. These sorts of exchanges need to take place within the context of relationship. My suggestion is to treat people asking for money as humans with real needs, and especially a need for the stabilizing, rejuvenating love of Jesus Christ. You can show them that love by spending time with them, talking and interacting.

Practically, making time for personal interaction is easiest by offering to purchase them a meal. (As trite as this sounds, it provides a hospitable venue for strong communication. Jesus ate with people as a ministry.) It is important to be very discerning at this time because taking someone who is currently under-the-influence of drugs or alcohol to a restaurant can be dangerous. You also have to be aware that many people will try to take advantage of your generosity. As Christians, I believe we are called to knowingly allow people to take advantage of us to a certain point, others may not agree with me however. The pragmatist in me is convinced of the need for balance while my idealist side vehemently disagrees.

Often, you will run into persons dealing with mental illness. I find this to be the most heart-breaking. Mental illnesses are the leading cause of homelessness in the US. (Insert tirade against Reagan-era privatization of the mental-health industry.)

I am generally apologetic when I refuse to give people money. Unfortunately, I find myself too busy with my own trivialities to give people the proper time and care that they deserve. I need to deliberately make time and space for this sort of thing.

There is more research that you need to do before attempting interaction...and even if you don't plan on interacting directly, I would recommend you do this anyway. Try to find a listing of local resources for homeless people: soup kitchens, shelters, free clinics, and recommend them to people. If they ask you for a meal and that's not possible at the moment, recommend somewhere that they can get one for free. Be prepared for a potential backlash as I have found that many people are not happy with how soup kitchens treat them.

It is all-important to remember that these needy people are made in the image of God, that they matter supremely to Him, (some theologians would even say that they are closer to Him than you are) and it's best to treat them with a great deal of care and respect.

My answer to him is short and lacking many details. I tried to lay out the basics of what flies through my head many times when approached by someone needy. The timing of this question is exceptionally poignant just after this week of homelessness awareness. May we all continue to remember the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves throughout the year.