Homeless Smomeless: Show Me Some Real Suffering

Rusty - March 31, 2005

Every day on my walk to the subway through my Brooklyn neighborhood I pass no less than three homeless people asking for money. On my way home I pass at least three as well (usually a different three). This doesn’t count the ones I run into when I’m in Manhattan.

This bothers me.

A true disciple of Christ might be bothered by this situation because there is a child of God who is suffering. A true believer in the teachings of Jesus might abhor the situation because of the dramatic imbalance of opportunity and means in our society. A true Christian might not be bothered at all, she’d just love these people.

Not me.

I’m bothered because they make me feel bad six times a day, NO MATTER WHAT I DO, whether I give or withhold. Why do they make me feel bad? Because I struggle with those teachings of Jesus we all know that are about giving to the poor. Because I once read Approaching Zion which suggested we need to give without judgment of those asking. Because I would never want to be in that situation and if I were I’d only hope someone would treat me with kindness.

But here’s the problem: it’s a career for some of these guys, it’s their full-time job. These are the same guys that have been asking me for money since I moved into the neighborhood two years ago. I know a few of their names. Everyone in the neighborhood knows their names. They are a Park Slope institution. In fact, a local magazine did an editorial on one of them where we learn all about him and how he gets along (answer: fine).

While I appreciate the fact that they aren’t sitting around a welfare-funded apartment living off my taxes, I have a hard time getting past the fact that the service they offer to society is a weight on our conscience. Payment? Our spare change. There are high school teachers in my hometown that make less than these guys, the only difference being the standard of living between New York and Spokane.

Don’t get me wrong, I often give them my change (when I have some in my pocket) but most of the time I don’t. And I hate walking past them acting as if I don’t see them. But it’s just as bad to look at them and give the shoulder-raise, squint my eyes and quietly say, “sorry, I don’t have any.” But I do have some. I could go to the bank and get money out. I could take them to the deli and buy them breakfast with my debit card. I could let them sleep on my couch for the night.

But is this fixing the problem? Isn’t this just buying them fish (rather than teaching them how to fish)? Yet, who am I to teach them a lesson? Shouldn’t I just have compassion and leave it at that? I know Christ (and King Benjamin and Paul and…) said we should give to the poor. Are these guys poor? They have no home, no job, no resources, no loved ones to count on. Are their new sneakers a gnat I’m straining at to justify my selfishness? Or is it just a matter of common sense to not encourage a dependence on other people’s charity?

1 Comment »

  1. This is a great question, and one that I’ve thought a lot about as well.

    I don’t know that there is a specific solution, but if anything, it’s doing exactly what you’re doing. Though it sounds weak, I think the answer is honestly considering the problem and making our best judgements. It’s genuinely loving the other enough to be willing to give, while thinking enough about the situation to act wisely.
    Eric Russell | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 7:45 am | #

    Most of the full-time homeless are mentally ill or addicted to drugs/alcohol. If you don’t feel comfortable giving to the homeless on the street, but want to do something to actually help, give to a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen.
    fluffy | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 11:07 am | #

    If you go to the ATM, withdraw money and give it to them each time you see them, how long will it be before you are out on the street?
    Kim Siever | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 11:09 am | #

    Rusty –

    As far as the “regulars” go, you need to start asking them for change when you see them. Not only will they stop asking you, they’ll avoid you. For the “non-regulars”, part of me wants to give unconditionally, and the other part wants to hand them the classified ads instead of a quarter. I try to give enough to DI each year to help counter the guilt I feel for passing by an outstretched arm. Justifiable? Probably not,

    Your entry reminded me of the many times I’ve been asked for money and how I’ve handled it, but for some reason also brought back the annoying memories of being bombarded by flyers outside of the BYU library. All it took was 5 steps to be invited to the girls softball game, the Helaman Halls dance, Tunnel singing and Mo Party 17.

    Totally off the subject, but I had to get it off my chest.
    Rob | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 12:55 pm | #

    I think we all have struggled, as you have, with this very question. I have thought and compared those who were beggars in Christ’s day and how He handled it.

    We don’t have a record of how Christ reacted to those who just begged, only to those who did so with faith. Those who begged with faith to be healed, were….the others He may have just passed by knowing what without their faith He could do nothing.

    I don’t know if that stricly applies to our day and our beggers, but I feel comfort in giving a generous fast offering etc. to help those in need. I know those funds are used properly and not for another drink or drug.

    I do still squirm a bit when I have to pass a begger on the street, but I live with it. It does make me thankful I’m not in their position.
    Don | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 1:18 pm | #

    Our responsibility is to give to those who petition us. We are not called on to necessarily give them want they are asking, however. Following the example of Jesus or Peter, we could give a priesthood blessing to someone asking money. (I’ve never done that.)

    I have had interesting experiences with people who have asked money of me because they are hungry. I gave one a part of my lunch, then watched him throw it in the bushes as I waited across the street for a bus. Another time, I said “There’s a small market two blocks that way. Let’s go.” After a block of walking, that beggar begged off. There was another who ran out of gas, but didn’t want to go with me to fill up a gas can. It’s a little funny when the tables are turned and one of those phonies starts making excuses to get away from you.

    There are also those who in such fashion we may end up helping. One night in Baltimore, I walked to a friend’s apartment a quarter-mile away. On the way there and back I was petitioned by several beggars. Returning to my apartment, there was a train of three following me to receive a meal. Before reaching it, two left me, and the third came in to eat. Another time, a beggar approached when I was working on my pickup out on the curb. I told him I would be working there until dark, and then would fix dinner. He could come back a half hour after sunset. After the meal was fixed, I went outside and looked for him, not expecting to find him, but there he was coming down the street. The few times I gave coins, I felt like I was guiltily avoiding dealing with matters. Sharing food, though, is a pleasant thing for one human to do with another.
    John Mansfield | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 2:09 pm | #

    John M., you are a good man.

    For me, it is a matter of insulation. If you live/work in certain areas, you never see it. Far from sight, far from mind.
    J. Stapley | Email | Homepage | 03.31.05 – 4:46 pm | #

    I’ve thought about this often also, particularly in the context of the scripture that says we should not judge beggars. But I’ve come to realise what the scripture says is that we shouldn’t judge for them for how they got in that position. We’re free to judge how they are likely to use the money we might give them, because the whole message of the scripture is to give so that they can help themselves. But if, in your judgement, they are more likely to spend it on drugs, alcohol etc, they are clearly not helping themselves (that is, NOT getting themselves by food, clothes, shelter), I don’t think your obligated to give at all.

    Thoughts, anyone?
    TimB | Email | Homepage | 04.01.05 – 1:14 am | #

    Tim,
    Interesting thoughts. I hadn’t thought of interpreting the scripture that way. You could very well be right. That, of course, makes what John M’s point that much more valid, that we probably shouldn’t be giving them money, but rather the actual thing they say they need.

    J Stapely,
    Let me tell you, outta sight, outta mind is one of the principles many of us thrive on (and more generally, Americans thrive on). It’s sad, but true.

    John M,
    I’ve had similar experiences to yours. I’ve brought food or tried to take them to the pizza place or whatever and also have had mixed results. I think this is a much better way to go about it. However, one of the things I struggle so much with, and it may be my American capitalist upbringing, but I hate that these people become dependent and I want to “teach them a lesson”. As if 1) it’s my responsibility to do so, and 2) I don’t like the idea of someone starving and sleeping on the street in the freezing cold to “teach them a lesson” about hard work and self sustainablity.

    Don,
    I hadn’t realized that Christ only reacted to those beggars who had faith. That’s an interesting observation. However, it doesn’t take away King Benjamin’s and Paul’s teachings, which weren’t specific.

    Rob,
    I feel the same way about the classified ad thing. However, I wonder if it’s because I was raised in a family/community that advanced those ideas and that mindframe. Some of these people have been raised to think that society needs to pay their expenses. Yes, that’s a terrible thing to learn as a child, but it’s hard to entirely blame the child. Yet, I can’t think of a better motivation that sleeping on the streets to make me realize that I need to actually work in this life.

    Kim,
    Your point is exactly right… in principle. But in reality I could probably do it for a while and give quite a bit of change.

    fluffy,
    You’re right. You’re totally right. But I know that that wouldn’t eliminate that guilt of passing the person on the street, which is part of the frustration I’m talking about.

    Eric,
    Your/my solution seems to be the best for me for now. I just wonder if there’s something I’m missing. If there’s some scripture that I’m reading incorrectly or some teaching by a prophet that I don’t know about, and I’m not being the kind of person I should be.
    Rusty | Email | Homepage | 04.01.05 – 10:14 am | #

    Rusty, as others have said, ours is not to judge, but we need not give charity in useless, counter-productive ways.

    On more than one Sunday, someone has wandered in to the Park Slope Ward looking for help. Generally, we offer relief in one form or another. Sometimes we pass the hat and offer a little money. Sometimes we have offered to pay for a meal. And sometimes I have given directions to the nearest homeless shelter or travelers’ aid society.

    Would that we could give perfectly every time. Unfortunately, we aren’t perfect. What we can do is be constantly aware of those who are less fortunate than we and trust that the Spirit will guide.
    Chris Williams | Email | Homepage | 04.01.05 – 10:52 pm | #

    When I lived in Seattle I worked in an area called Pioneer Square, which was where a lot of homeless shelters were. There was also a park with lots of benches and old buildings with lots of covered doorways to sleep in.

    For awhile I was going in very early in the morning. It’s odd to walk down the street and see people sleeping on the sidewalk all up and down the street.

    A lot of the homeless are mentally ill. And you can’t necessarily recognize which are mentally ill by looking at them.

    Some of them you sure can, though. There were a couple men I’d see regularly on the street. One would stand at an intersection that I’d pass everyday on my way to my car after work. I called him the Muffin Man (to my co-workers) because he once sat on the steps of our building and shredding a muffin all over them. He was the type to yell random things and make funny noises. But when I passed him at his panhandling spot he’d always be completely silent. He had this way of gravitating towards you with a cup in his hand, stretched out towards you, but everything else in his demeanor indicated that he didn’t even know you were there. I’d sometimes have change ready in my pocket to give him.

    Another fellow, a jolly overweight type, had a grocery cart full of all kinds of stuff. He’d sit on the waterfront and hassle tourists. I liked him because he once asked me to marry him. He was a charmer.

    As far as giving money, I don’t know that you should do it out of guilt. You should do it out of a genuine desire to help someone who needs it. Just as if you can’t afford to, but have a desire to, you are blameless. As someone who has been very poor, I can tell you we all really do depend on God for all our sustenance. It’s all His, even the air we breathe.
    Susan M | Email | Homepage | 04.02.05 – 12:17 pm | #

    Last year I was in Paris with my brother and I had never been aproached by so many beggars before in my life. Practically when our feet hit the train station floor we were aproached by a a young girl in her teens dressed in “middle easten garb”. She came directly up to me and said in as plain english as any Eurpoean Ive ever heard, “English?” She then held up, with an attitude that I was wasting her time, a post card that had written on it, “I cannot speak any english. My family was sepparated in Iraq and my Daddy is still there. We have no food and no one to take care of us. Please help.” I was taken aback for one, since I dont have much expirence with begging, and two, this method of asking for help. I gave her an american dollar since thats all I had on me. She seemed displeased and went on “asking” others around us.

    Throughout the next 3 days we spent in Paris, we were aproached by similar looking girls with the same postcard, with the same story, with the same handwritting, at various popular tourist spots. Since, I havent had the highest opinion of career bumbs.

    For me, Ill dontate the money to the people that can help. Fight the problem at its root and supposrt those that concern themselves with this issue. Supporting these people keeps my concious clear and I am allowed to focus on the things that I concern myself with.
    Bryce | Email | Homepage | 04.07.05 – 7:44 am | #

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