In her comment on my previous post, Jean said:
"When I'm in the United States, I often hear people praising the European welfare states for doing a better job of taking care of their tired, their poor, their sick, and their hungry - but when I am here in France, I still see just as many beggars on the train on my way to work or on the sidewalk on my way to church. I have been coming here for twenty years now, and it seems to me that the number has remained constant through every change of political party in power whether the president was Mitterand, Chirac, or Sarkozy. Sometimes giving feels right, sometimes it feels wrong, and always, always, always the decision itself feels difficult.I've been thinking about this problem since at least 1987, when I moved from New Jersey to New York City. I'd encountered beggars before that, of course, since I'd worked in the city for years and lived there part-time, staying with my father and stepmother on weekends, but becoming a full-time Manhattan resident brought the issue into new and sharper relief.
"If you or any of your readers happen to have any thoughts about this particular problem, I would be very glad to hear them."
I lived on 110th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. The subway stop was half a block away. To catch the train to work in the morning, I had to walk past a literal line-up of homeless people, six to twelve a day, all with their hands out.
I couldn't help all of them, and I didn't have the skills or the time to evaluate who needed my spare change most; and at that point in my life, I didn't have all that much spare change, anyway. And there was the ever-worrying "But won't they just spend it on drugs or alcohol?" question.
Important digression: In 1986, when I was still living with my mother, I had -- very, very briefly, which was probably a good thing all around -- dated James Ellroy, the somewhat notorious and extremely colorful noir crime novelist. James, as anyone who's even slightly familiar with his biography knows, spent ten years homeless on the streets of L.A., addicted to speed and alcohol. He wrote his first novel, Brown's Requiem, while he was working as a caddy at an L.A. golf course; he composed the manuscript longhand, standing at a dresser between rounds because there wasn't a desk. By the time I met him, he'd been sober and drugfree for years, and was starting to sell movie rights to his books, a fact he celebrated by buying extremely expensive cashmere sweaters. But whenever he got a royalty check for Brown's Requiem, he sent ten percent to the broken-down alcoholic caddy at the golf course who'd been the inspiration for one of the characters in the book -- and whenever people on the street asked him for money, he gave them whatever he had, no questions asked.
One day we were approached by a young guy who was clearly high as the proverbial kite, and who delivered an incomprehensible, jittery monologue about why he needed money. James, as usual, emptied his pockets. Afterwards, I shook my head and said, "Aren't you afraid he's just going to spend the money on drugs?"
James looked at me and said, very gently, "Susan, I'm still alive today because when I was a drug addict on the streets, people gave me money without asking me what I was going to do with it."
I've never forgotten that, and I didn't forget it on 110th Street, either. But I couldn't afford James' generosity, and that morning gauntlet was intimidating. I was sharing an apartment with several other women, and we spent a fair amount of time agonizing over this. For a while, we favored choosing one guy (they were almost always men) and buying him a meal at the bagel shop on the corner, but picking only one person was hard, and the meals weren't that cheap. One of my roommates took pity on a fellow who always slept in a doorway on the block and gave him a pillow, but was outraged, a few days later, when the pillow was gone. (She was mad at him for losing it; even then, it seemed more likely to me that someone had taken it from him.) One of my roommates became completely disgusted with all the beggars, whom she dismissed as ungrateful charlatans, and stopped giving any of them anything. Various other people I knew decided to give to reputable social-service agencies but not to individuals, and I did a little of that, but it didn't lessen the pangs I felt walking past all those outstretched hands.
I kept agonizing. Someone I knew shared a strategy: figure out how much you can afford to give away that day. Break it down into quarters or singles or whatever, and put it in your pocket. Whenever someone asks you for a handout, give that person one of the quarters or dollar bills. When the money's gone, it's gone, and you've done what you can do for that day.
I did this for a while, but it made the morning walk to the subway even more harrowing, since the regulars quickly figured out what I was doing and eyed my pockets.
I lived full-time in New York until 1990, and the question never got too much easier, although I did figure out a few permanent guidelines:
* I wouldn't give money to anyone who tried to frighten me, guilt-trip me, or engage in any kind of emotional blackmail. For a while, every ATM in the city had a homeless attendant or two who'd open the door for you and then expect a tip. They didn't get any from me, because I could open my own door just fine, thank you.
* If I'd heard a particular story before and realized that the person was lying, that person got no money, either.
* I'd cheerfully give money to anyone who entertained me, or even tried to. I still fondly recall one fellow who worked the #1 Broadway line, and who distinguished himself from the competition by toting around a beaten, bashed-in saxophone. He'd play screeching, ear-splitting noise for a few minutes, stop, grin at everybody in the subway car, and say brightly, "Who'll give me twenty-five cents to stop doing this?" Almost everyone laughed, and a good many reached for their spare change. Anything that made my commute less tedious was worth a quarter or two!
* I was also more likely to give money to people who explained carefully what they did and didn't need. One evening on the subway, a young woman with a toddler came into my car and asked politely for everyone's attention. She needed short-term financial help, she told us. Her baby's father had walked out on them. She had a place to live, and she was signed up with Welfare and would start receiving those benefits in a certain number of days. Once she got her first check, she'd be fine, but in the meantime, here were her expenses. She proceeded to give us a detailed budget breakdown: so much per week for diapers, so much per day for babyfood, so much per day (a very modest amount) for her own meals. Could anyone help?
A lot of people helped. It was a calm, impressive performance. One woman sat down next to her and started talking about housing help, and the young mother said patiently, "Thanks so much, but I have an apartment. That's not the problem at the moment." Because she limited her claim, she got more from her listeners.
In 1997, when Gary and I moved to Reno, I stopped encountering homeless people -- as I had almost every day back East -- because I started driving. Cars are terrific insulation, but that insulation bothered me. I didn't want to become complacent about my own level of privilege. One of the reasons I started going to church was to get more involved in helping people: as a direct result, I began volunteering with our community's Family Promise network -- St. Stephen's was a host congregation for homeless families (parents and children) for quite a few years, and I served on and off as our volunteer coordinator -- and also started volunteering at the emergency room, which is one reliable way to interact with homeless people in a safe environment.
Somewhere in there, I met a very wise Catholic man who responded to the "should we give them money?" issue by saying this: "If someone pretending to be homeless scams you, the deception is that person's sin. If you assume that a person in need is scamming you and refuse to help, your hardheartedness is your sin." This man, like many others I know, favors the "give what you can afford when you're comfortable doing so" approach. I once discussed my Catholic friend's comments with my fundamentalist-atheist father (who's actually one of the most Christian people I've ever met), and he said, "If you aren't being scammed once in a while, you aren't being generous enough." Some of the people out there are lying; many aren't.
I've also now met a number of formerly -- as well as currently -- homeless folks, all of whom report that the most difficult thing about being homeless is feeling invisible. All of them say something like this: "If you don't want to give money, don't; that's up to you. But please, please, make eye contact! Say hello. Treat us like people, because we are."
The homeless person to whom I'm most generous (although not as generous as I promise myself I'll be, or as I wish I could be) is also the homeless person I know the best: my friend A in Berkeley, about whom I've posted at some length. This reinforces the point of my homily this morning: relationship lies at the heart of generosity.
Since moving to Reno, I've noticed that when we visit San Francisco, I'm usually badly startled the first time I'm approached for change, and usually don't have any in my pocket. I don't like taking out my wallet on the sidewalk, so when we go to the city, I try to remember to put change in a pocket so I won't be caught unprepared. When I am unprepared, I usually say something like, "Sorry, I can't help you today," but I try to smile and make eye contact.
I'm not perfect at any of this.
In summary, my recommendations would be:
1. If you can, try to give a little bit of money, as much as feels comfortable, without asking what the person is going to do with it. It's a gift.
2. Even if you don't give money, do make some sort of human contact. It will be as good for you as for the person in front of you!
3. Homeless-service agencies always need funds, but personal involvement is just as generous and far more life-changing (for both sides). There are a number of programs -- Family Promise, local soup kitchens, and so forth -- that provide safe, structured ways to interact with this population.
4. For a superb book on helping the homeless, see Christine Pohl's Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Among other things, she does a great job of talking about how to set boundaries and recognize burnout.
Oh, and here's a grim cautionary tale. A young security guard at the hospital told me about a friend of his father's, a very scraggly looking member of a motorcycle gang. This gentleman was in San Francisco one weekend and, while crossing the street, was hit by a speeding car, which threw him onto the sidewalk. He landed in a doorway, blacked out for a while, and -- when he came to -- started asking passersby for help.
No one would help him, or even look at him, because they assumed he was homeless and only wanted their money. He lay there for two days, and when someone finally did realize that he was hurt and called 911, the medical care came too late to save his legs, which had to be amputated. They could have been saved if he'd gotten prompt assistance.
Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. And so forth.
Oh, and: lots of homeless people are kids. You all knew that, right?
Whew! I told you I had a lot to say about this! Would any of you care to add your two cents?