Sunday, February 13, 2005

Real help in the face of ugly need

This world has big problems.

It doesn't take a moment's glance around to notice dramatic need just outside the paths I walk every day. Ted posted recently about a problem next door that keeps getting bigger every time he notices it. He calls his post a "whiny rant" but I'd say it's worthwhile to notice and draw attention to these problems when we see them.

The other Rutherford with which I spend much time picked up on one of Portland's big problems on Saturday: that of the ubiquitous panhandlers that accost sidewalkers nearly every block downtown. We had a brief conversation about this over lunch at the Rock Bottom. He noted that another of our friends was notorious for going far out of his way to help the lowest of our society's citydwellers when the opportunity presented itself. Apparently, he also said that it was the "Christian" thing to do to help out those in need by buying them lunch, giving them a handful of change, offering them a ride. Eric disagreed, saying that it did no good and in fact probably did harm by enabling their parasitic lifestyle. No doubt some panhandlers do a brisk trade in begging each day and come away with more than some minimum-wage earners.

And thereby we had covered the waterfront of the usual debate surrounding that question: what to do when confronted by a panhandler, to give or not to give. Having worked downtown for a long time, I found myself confronted again with a question for which I had yet to find a satisfactory answer.

Strangely enough, I found myself thinking about both this conversation and Ted's post Sunday morning during our worship. The text was Exodus 33:12-23, centering on the idea that God reassures us in our faith through the presence, words, and actions of other Christians. Julie told a brief story about when she was first attending church. Something said during the sermon touched her deeply because of a family tragedy she had experienced and she fled the room in tears. At that time, she did not know anyone in the church, but two other young women her age followed her outside, talked with her, and comforted her in her loss. She named that as a time when God had worked powerfully through His people to bring her comfort in a way she had never experienced, least of all from strangers.

I wonder if this is what Jake had meant when he said that kindness offered to panhandlers was a "Christian" thing to do. For him to take the time to offer a smile, a warm handshake, and a few kind words along with a couple of bucks or a ride to a vagrant looks a lot like something Jesus might do. So perhaps we do help?

But Eric is also correct in saying that the vast majority of panhandlers are indeed scam artists and giving them money only reinforces a terrible lifestyle that nearly always involves addiction to alcohol and drugs. They are almost always responsible for the choices that landed them on the street. Now that they are there, many are not interested in escaping the lifestyle and only continue to languish in their destructive habits. So perhaps we don't enable them.

But then again, God didn't wait for us to go find him and clean up our act before sending Jesus into our world to begin His crisis-response mission. We were no more deserving of His help than the vagrant is deserving of a kind word. So we help?

Yikes, but if we go back to Ted's post, we have always to keep an eye on the larger problem. As Eric said, enabling isn't helping, it's hurting. Offered as a standard practice, giving money to panhandlers only creates a niche for panhandlers to continue their trade. So we don't help?

And we're back at the same problem. Offering money or a ride to the vagrant is a kindness that he does not merit. But he deserves kindness from a Christian because he is a man formed by God and the Christian is one of God's chosen instruments to participate in the continued restoration of this broken world. What kindness can be shown to a man that helps him?

Is there a Christian approach that takes into account Jake's heart, Ted's socioeconomic scale, and Eric's consideration against enablement? What if a person took the time to be kind (with Jake's heart), offering words of blessing and encouragement while refusing to give money (in light of Eric's consideration)? What difference might kind words make to a person who has endured endless scorn and shame (albeit of his own design, but terrible pain nonetheless)? Add to that a willingness to know the resources available nearby (Ted's larger scale view) to help those in need and the boldness to help connect them with these resources, and you have a recipe that seems to be the only one with a chance of offering real help.

No doubt such effort and words would be wasted on many of those to whom they would be given. But if God was willing to go to the lengths He did to offer us a way out of a broken life, then perhaps such effort is the least I can do to reflect His love for those most unlovable who chant the forever words, "spare some change?"


ted said...

What bothers me most about the panhandlers, and cheif among them the recent popularity of the signs at the interchange, is that when people do give it is often driven by guilt. We see a man who obviously has less than us standing at an interchange in the cold or rain with his sign. It is no secret that there is a condition which exists called Rich White Guilt. Not only is it known, it is preyed up by these men. One of the signs that bothers me the most is the sign that ends with "God Bless." It bothers me because the sign is designed to provoke guilt among believers.

If the people who do give money to these panhandlers would instead offer a donation to a homeless shelter in the same amount I really believe they would be doing more. For the five or ten dollars they give to the guy on the corner, who will arguably be using it for another 40 of Ripple or worse, a homeless shelter could feed somewhere between three and ten people. Homeless shelters also offer a place for people to sleep, access to services, showers, and often church services. Also there is often an opportunity for the person recieving the services the chance to work for what they have been given. There is also the benefit of a tax deduction for the giver. Trisha and I are regular supporters of Union Gospel Mission here in Salem. The amount of money we give is admittedly small, but so is our income. I would never dream of giving even a fraction of what we give to UGM to a guy panhandling on a corner.

Throwing money at a person is not the solution. That is the easy way out. You give the money and forget about the problem and feel better in the comfort of your SUV. If you really want to help them or make a difference, offer your help in some way. Money usually only perpetuates the problem.

I think you would often find them saying, "could you just give some money?" These are the people who are not yet ready to recieve anything but money and outside of Jason's point, in my thinking.

Karen said...

Reading about how most panhandlers are scamming you, I was reminded of something a friends of mine says everytime she sees someone standing on the corner of the highway with a sign, "Where'd you get the money for the sharpie?". When you really think about it, they probably found it or just used it somewhere, but it's a thing to think about.

Tim Lewis said...

You know, I'm glad you mentioned this. I have thought about how much money I could make (tax free, I might add) just going downtown, setting out a cup, and doing some beatboxing or sing or something. It would be more than just holding a sign, for I would be providing a service, that being entertainment. I wonder just how much money I could make doing that, and not give any of it to the government. This could be my "job".

I hope you realize I am being somewhat facetious, but I really do wonder how much money I could make in a month of doing that.

Jake Shore said...

This is such a tough question. I can't think of any time where I have helped out a homeless person (food, a ride, money)and not felt a gnawing in my gut that I am being scammed. It sucks because you'd like to think you're really helping someone. Although its usually obvious based on someone's appearance that they are homeless or mentally ill, sometimes it isn't. What if this person is actually sincerely in need? I believe that I have a very good radar for being scammed and yet I can't shake this feeling of what if? I don't want to say "no" that one time when someone is really in need and I blew them off.

My dad told me this story of how he and another trucker pulled over into a shopping center in California. As they were walking toward the store, they were approached by this guy who said he was really hungry and didn't have any money. This area by the way was alongside a freeway and unlikely to have any missions. My dad's partner reached into his pocket and pulled out a huge wad of change, probably like five bucks or more, and gave it all to the guy. The guy was very appreciative and took off. My dad looked at his friend as they walked into the store and said,"I can't believe you just did that! You know he's just going go buy some liquor."

His friend responded,"Yeah, you're probably right." A short time later, they walked out of the store back to the truck and saw the guy standing in line at McDonalds ordering dinner. Needless to say, my dad felt pretty low.
For me, its worth getting scammed 100 times just to help one person put some food in their belly. As a Christian I simply can't think anything less.

However, I can certainly relate to the enabling argument. I remember when I was living in Tacoma, I was stopped by this guy who held me and another lady conversationally hostage. He went on and on about his crummy situation and didn't give us a polite chance to leave. Eventually he asked the lady who lived in he building we were standing in front of for food. She visibly squirmed and make some lame excuse. I felt bad for her, because I felt the same way. So I bailed her out and I offered to buy him lunch at McDonalds. So we did, then he asked me to give him a ride to a halfway house in Seattle that could help him better his situation. I was suspicious, but continued and drove him an hour away to some crummy neighborhood with no sign of a halfway house. I questioned him about this and he rambled off some line about me having to trust him. It seemed obvious that I was being scammed, but what could I do? And I am embarassed to say I gave him twenty bucks. On the long drive home, I felt pissed off. I went to all this effort and I don't even know if I truly helped this guy out. I didn't do it to make myself feel good, or because of white guilt. I did it because I thought it was the right thing. I'm still embarassed about that story, but on the other hand, what if God was working in that moment? What if something I did in God's name affected him to a positive end? Jason told me one time that its not for you to decide whether an act of charity will really do any good. The act will stand on its one because it is commnaned by God. And if the person is scamming you, its not place to worry about it.

This may seem a bit of a cop out. After all, we live in the "real world" and have to be judicious about our charity. I don't give money to guys sitting at interchanges. I very rarely give to panhandlers. I would not hesitate to buy someone something to eat who asked. And like Ted says, you can probably do the most good by giving money to institions that clothe, shelter, feed, and encourage self-sufficiency.

I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say, only that I don't have one hard and fast rule about giving. I try to be wise, but in a pinch I go with my gut.

Alien Shaman said...

I lived in Los Angeles for 5 years, and I would not give money to the homeless. I have lived in San Diego for another 5 years now, and I will not give money to the homeless.

I was at the beach the other day and there were many many homeless people sitting on the boardwalk smoking and drinking. When I see activities such as this, I will not give money to the homeless.

With that said we donate money to local charities for the homeless in San Diego regularly. I am a firm believer that decent organizations exist that will feed and shelter the less fortunate - but my direct contribution does nothing by exaserbate the problem on the streets.

Homelessness has been an issue for all of time. There will always be a portion of society that chooses to be destitute. We should not use government funds to help these people, but instead rely upon local charities (secular and religious) to help them. Some of us offer money, and others offer their time. Together we can help our community, but the government should not be involved.