BLOGGER TEMPLATES AND TWITTER BACKGROUNDS

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

what to do?


   Okay, this post has nothing whatsoever to do with this picture, but I love this picture of Baby so much, that I wanted to post it.  I would have put it in yesterday's post, but I had already posted my limit for pics, so I am posting it now.  And since it is my blog, I can do that.  Now, on to the topic at hand...  

     Lately, I have been living in cities.  And so, I have been noticing a problem that seems to be almost unconquerable (I said almost so you don't need to remind me of the Bible verses that call us more than conquerers--they are my inspiration for the almost).  It seems that everywhere I go, I am faced with homeless people.  Some are obviously crazy.  There is one woman who hangs around outside our theater, for instance, and she is very preoccupied with finding her lip gloss.  Now, I don't know if her lips are chapped, or it is purely a vain thing, but she is hard core after some lip gloss.  The weather is cold here (as Mark Twain said, I've never spent a colder winter than summer in San Francisco--happy, Josh?), and she generally wears shorts and a t-shirt and a sweat band across her ankle (don't ask me why--maybe she has a sweaty ankle?).  Anyway, one day this woman just announced to the world, You can stick your finger up my *** and call me Shirley, but I NEED MY LIP GLOSS.  We were like, Uh, no thanks...Shirley...
    But seriously, Shirley is not alone.  Maybe in her quest for lip-gloss, sure, but not in her apparent homeless state.  I see so many people that make me so sad--even guilty--every day.  These are people who are veterans, people without certain limbs, people who have run away from a terrible situation, people who have lost their marbles, but bottom line, they are all people, right?  
   Anyway, yesterday while we were at the Fisherman's Wharf there was a guy huddled on the side of the street with a crusty old blanket for warmth.  Of course he asked us for money, and of course I felt terrible as we walked by with our full stomachs and shiny credit cards.  He had also said he was hungry, so I looked around for any dinner I could get him.  The best I could find was a corn dog at a roadside stand, so after buying this for him, I ran back to where he was and told him I had some dinner for him.  He looked at me and said, Well, do you have any money for me?  All you have is a hot dog? I said no, I didn't have any money for him, that this was all that I had for him.  He didn't look grateful at all.  He just took it nonchalantly and tossed a half-hearted thanks my way before he took a bite.   I walked away feeling empty and stupid. I knew that the corn dog wasn't going to solve his problems.  I knew that he would still be homeless and dirty and poor, but still--I thought some compassion could somehow change the situation.  

    Anyway, when I got to the theater tonight, I told my good friend about it.  Now, he feels very differently about homeless people than I do.  He has no compassion towards them and says that they have all made choices to get where they are.  He thinks that us giving them something for nothing only perpetuates the problem; that people who do not work for their keep become even lazier and lose all ambition to be productive citizens.  Now, before you judge him, please realize that he had a very tumultuous childhood, and actually spent some time as a kid homeless with his mom.  He saw her pull herself up out of a difficult situation; he saw her overcome homelessness and work very very hard.  My friend does not, however, think that the homeless should be ignored; he thinks that we need to develop programs that teach them to be productive.  Basically, it's like that Native American proverb, Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.
    Anyway, I guess all the homelessness makes me feel very sad and a little confused.  I wanted to get that man some food because I wanted to show him compassion in a real way.  I didn't want to simply say God bless you and leave him hungry and in need, like the parable goes.  It would scare me if I started walking by the under privileged and didn't feel a thing.  But I can also see my friend's point.  What do you guys think?  What do you do when you see people in need?  I understand it is a case by case situation, but still--any wisdom or thoughts you have on the matter would be great to hear.  
  

16 comments:

peaj said...

First, I'd like to distinguish between homeless people and panhandlers. Panhandlers are people that ask you for charity. Not all homeless people are panhandlers; not all panhandlers are homeless (though we often assume that they are). I think that your question is really about panhandlers.

I haven't been approached by a panhandler in years, but Donna used to deal with them daily when she taught adult education classes at shelters in Wilmington. She came up with what I thought was a sensible strategy: she told them that she couldn't give them money, but she would go with them to a store to buy them something. Many wouldn't take her up on it, which she interpreted as an indication that they either wanted the money for something illicit or that they were too proud to take her up on her offer. For many of those that accepted, they asked for food. I remember once a woman took her up on her offer and asked Donna to buy her some underwear.

See, it was her job to teach people to fish, but she also gave a fish when asked. I don't see the two options as mutually exclusive. So, if you feel compassion for panhandlers, you might give to some, but you might also contribute to organizations that help them in more long-term ways like education and housing.

Mom said...

I liked your response, Peaj......This is controversial among Christians. Some believe that you give no matter who is asking and what their motivations are. It's their responsibility once you give them money. Others think that it's our responsibility to be careful with money and do what you did with the corn dog. Tony Campolo says that you just give no matter who asks. When we gave food out in Philly, many of our Christian friends in Philly were upset with us because they felt we were doing more harm than good. They lived in the city and honestly felt we were naive. I do what Donna & you do. I offer food if they say they are hungry. Not all homeless people have gotten there because of bad choices. But even if they "deserve" it, there but for the grace of God go any of us.

Anonymous said...

I think you sound like a very compassionate person. Just to let you know.... the average homeless person in Washington, DC makes $30,000 a year (tax free). There was a story recently in the Washington Post about a "homeless" man who made so much money and received so many free gifts that he had to rent 2 hotel rooms to put it all in. He said that he could make more money working the streets than he could working at McDonalds. I am not saying that this is the case for all homeless people, I am just saying that you shouldn't feel guilty for what your hard work has earned you. What you see on the streets is not always what you get in reality.

kathieK said...

I agree with what PJ and your mom said, Jess. It is hard to know if someone is genuinely in need and not just scamming you. I think Donna's approach is a sensible one, with one exception. I wouldn't go with the person, I would probably offer to get them the food and bring it back, just like you did, Jess. Actually, no probably about it, it IS what I would do. Once, I was coming out of the Newark post office and a man asked me for money because he was hungry. I told him I could not give him any money, but I would be happy to buy him food. I was right near Main street, plenty of options there, but he declined. It made me wonder just how hungry he really was. John has asked me not to go anywhere WITH someone, as a safety precaution, but I could get it for that person and bring it back.

Jessica Latshaw said...

thanks, guys--this is all really good stuff.

It is true that some of have made choices to get where they are--but they are no less deserving of compassion than any of us, right?

Also, there are some who were born into poverty, through no fault of their own. Just as I didn't earn the right to be born into an intact, loving, middle-class family-they didn't deserve to be the son or daughter of a prostitute/heroin addict.

I don't think handing people money is the solution (plus, I barely ever have cash, anyway). But, I do want to be open to give--whenever, whatever, I guess.

Thanks again for all the wisdom!

Christine said...

Hey Jess...I had a thought while reading this that might be too involved but I'll share it anyway. What if you did a little research, it wouldn't take much I'd imagine, and found out where the programs are in your area that help the homeless. Shelters, food banks, job training programs, etc. You could carry a couple copies of the list you make and give that to any one who asks you for money. I don't know, on one hand it could seem a little cold but on the other hand there are a lot of programs designed to give people the help they need and it makes me wonder sometimes why people aren't using what is out there. I've never of thought of doing this myself until now, so anyway...just a thought : ) You could also continue to not carry cash which is by far the easiest solution for whether to give them money or not : )

kathieK said...

I think Christine's idea is a good one, Jess! And it is not "cold" if you are also giving them some food. Some of the people you encounter might already know of these programs, but some may not. And to have such a list could help you in personally contributing to organizations that are already helping people, as PJ suggested.

Anonymous said...

I think that everyone is deserving of compassion regardless of what decisions they have made in the past. We are all humans and we have all made mistakes. With no grace and no second chances, we would all be in sorry shape.

This certainly isn't an answer to a problem, but it is an interesting fact. There are more abandoned / empty homes in america than homeless people.

Collin

jason said...

I used to give money to every homeless person I saw, but you just can't do that on the west coast. It's just really much more prevalent there (and I can't say I blame them, I'd totally get to the west coast if I were homeless.) They are much more aggressive about asking for money in CA, too. Kind of takes any joy of giving away. So I don't really have any answers for you at all, just really saying that I don't as a rule give anymore while I did before. (I also have no cash most of the time.) But I will be honest with you, I don't feel as bad for homeless people on the west coast as I do in NYC or Philly... the weather's nice, you can almost always find food around, and there are places like Venice Beach where you can totally fit in or earn money for just acting strange. (Like a man who sings "Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Help me get Drunk!" I don't know the solution by any means...

Jessica Latshaw said...

I don't know, Jase, I don't think you always gave money, because I distinctly remember being in Baltimore with you and you giving a homeless person some fudge--or maybe you offered it to them, and they were like, You trying to rot out my teeth, boy?!?!?

Collin--I absolutely agree that we all need second chances--and, Interesting fact about the abandoned homes.

Christine--that really IS a good idea! Drew and I have been talking a long time about giving some of our money to an organization that does really help people--this is a good time to do it!

Jessica Latshaw said...

Josh--I FINALLY used that quote you've been harping on me to use, and I hear a big fat nothing from you!!!!

I thought you'd jump for joy and sing like the angels...

I thought you'd at least mention it...

Anonymous said...

There is a large contingency of homeless people who are mentally ill, and another large population of drug users, and a lot of crossover between both. People often expect that if a person is homeless and or panhandling, that they will be humble. But if a lot of the homeless come from those two above sources, humility cannot be expected. Homeless people are often dangerous, in fact, so a lot of caution is needed along with compassion, especially when you look like an easy target. Be VERY careful about going somewhere with a stranger, especially if you are alone. But definitely don't deny yourself your humanity, and I think god is definitely not going to hold it against you if you try to help someone, even if your judgment can't be certain about how deserving they may or may not be, or what their intentions are. The scripture that always sticks with me in those situations is about what you do for the least of your brothers, who are often not filled with gratitude.

My experience with homeless/ panhandling people in L.A. is that asking for food money is the quickest way to earn your sympathy. Remember that it only takes a dollar to get a double cheeseburger at McDonald's, and the majority of people that have approached me were by themselves, not with children in tow. I don't think it really hurts if you want to give someone a dollar, it's hard to cause any damage that way. If food is their true motivation, they should accept your offering with some grace. If not, the worst you have done is wasted a dollar. If your instinct tells you it would be a mistake to even give them a dollar, by all means follow it. The list of resources couldn't hurt, but don't be offended if no one seems to appreciate it. Many times there are qualifications attached to those resources, and they are not terribly easy to access. Sobriety is often a requirement, and that's too much commitment for some. But we ALL fall down, and we all need mercy.

If we all contributed time or money to organizations that take on the the big solutions, at least we would know that resources exist for those that choose to take advantage of them. Your time at the shelter kitchen was well spent. It's so hard to come up with solutions for the mentally ill or for drug addiction, especially just as an individual. You could buy that lady some lip gloss, but would it really help? I think from the time that Adam and Eve ate the apple, freedom of choice has been one of our greatest blessings but also greatest hardship. We are loathe to take freedoms away from individuals, even for those that are so obviously not in a mental position to make good choices. It is very hard not to be overwhelmed and feel powerless by the amount of hardship that you are witnessing, and also hard not to feel overly privileged.

But I remember sitting in your church, and hearing you say at worship service how much God WANTS good things for us. Wouldn't we be ungrateful if we didn't accept the good things with some grace ourselves? Even the things we haven't earned? You are sharing your gifts and your bounty with the world, and you are using your life to witness god's love. We all fall short, and we all get discouraged, but I think the experience you are having now is probably helping to teach the lesson of what it really means to walk the walk as a christian. It probably won't make you feel any better though, it's certainly a heart breaking problem.

Jessica Latshaw said...

thanks, anonymous--you have a lot of insight and wisdom...

Pop said...

Hey, ready for this?--it's a veritable tome!

When Mom and I were in Denver, we noticed what seemed to me a huge number of homeless/panhandlers. Apparently I look like I easily give away money because it seems like I was approached a lot. Once, walking a few blocks to your theatre's stage door, I was followed by a homeless woman for about a block before she caught up to me and asked for money.

Kind of along the line of Peaj's comment about the distinction between homeless people and panhandlers, today's homeless seem to me to be a subset of those the Bible refers to as "the poor."

It's interesting to me that biblically there are two different kinds of "poor people."

First there are the "righteous" poor, as in "blessed are the poor, for theirs is..." and the poor Jewish Christians who were recipients of the offerings taken up by 1st century Gentile churches. These "poor" are those whose economic destitution is not their fault but the consequence of factors external to them--like family class status, institutional racism and bigotry, economic injustice, etc. The righteous poor are praised in Scripture because they seem more capable of responding in humility and gratitude to God and his representatives. They know they truly need God's grace and so more easily receive it. It's to the righteous poor that Christians in the New Testament (and Jews in the Old) are exhorted to give liberally--and to help in every way they can. Some of the homeless in cities are no doubt in this category. When helped, my guess is they will respond positively, with gratitude for starters.

Also in the Bible are described a second category of "the poor" who are poor because of personal flaws like laziness, foolishness, and irresponsibility. (Proverbs speaks of this kind of "the poor.") Their poverty is caused not by externally uncontrollable factors but by their own bad decisions. The message to them is to take personal responsibility for their situations and to decide to work to change their ways. The implication is that if they change, their poverty will also change in time, usually through the help of others in some form. Seems like only when they reach the end of their resources and hit personal rock bottom are they motivated to start to get the help they need (the Prodigal Son parable comes to mind). Unconditional gifts of money to them would seem, to me, only to enable their unhealthy lifestyle patterns. No doubt many homeless are in this category. They want money, yes, but not really to buy food, etc., but to continue to fund their unhealthy choices.

Sounds like you might bought a corn dog for one!

The absence of gratitude on his part is the give-away to me.

(Then there are the those with mental disabilities too, but that's not a category of the poor addressed in the Bible.)

Both kind of "poor" need help in order to escape poverty, but some will not accept it because they don't want to change their lifestyles.

Hard to know which is which when you're asked for money by a homeless person. I guess whoever said spend a dollar on something to eat for the person is on to something. Do this and check out the reaction--gratitude or some combination of annoyance and entitlement--and you'll probably have a strong sense of whether it's
a righteous poor person you're trying to help (whom we SHOULD give to as Christians) or some other kind.

I remember once decades ago when Mom and I were driving through a poorer neighborhood near Wilmington, DE. We stopped at a railroad track and saw on the side of the road a grandmotherly looking older woman lugging some heavy bags of groceries down the street. I sensed God whisper to me, "Stop and give that woman $20." We were kind of poorer ourselves at the time, and I think we had that $20 earmarked for our own needs, but this was such a clear inner voice that I knew I had to obey. I hopped out of our car and gave her the money. She was astonished, and very grateful.

I believe this lady is an example of the righteous poor Jesus told his followers to give to. And she wasn't panhandling--just working hard to feed herself and probably others too.

jason said...

Ha ha, I like the dollar test! Give a dollar, check the reaction, and then go from there.

Jessica Latshaw said...

thanks, pop--that's really good!

and I am so glad you helped that grandmotherly woman--I love it when God's voice is so clear!