The Gifts of Joy and Doubt

This is the first in a series of guest blogs about panhandling: when, how, and why to give.

Many thanks to Sarah Rosangela for sharing her own experiences encountering poverty on the streets of Toronto and Washington, D.C..  Sarah is a poet, a mother, and an Orthodox Christian.  You can read more from Sarah at her blog, Death Sentences, and follow her on Twitter.

A few weeks ago my partner and I went on a little stay-cation in our home city of Toronto. We wanted to take time to appreciate everything our day to day lives allowed us to overlook, so we booked a few nights at a charming hotel and set off to get to know our neighbourhood. As we crossed the sidewalk on our way to dinner I noticed a pile of garbage on the corner and quickly grabbed my partner, hoping to keep him from stepping in it. He swerved, but I looked down long enough to notice hands sticking out from beneath the heap of papers and bags. It wasn’t trash. We both looked over our shoulder as we walked away. It was 19 degrees that night.

We suddenly noticed there was a homeless person on nearly every block. Canada is one of the few countries without a national housing plan; Toronto has only 9 city run shelters. With over 24,000 homeless individuals in the Greater Toronto Area, the welfare of many is left in the hands of a few private shelters and ordinary citizens. That night, I gave money to each one I came across; first change, then bills. At one point, overcome with emotion, I turned my bag upside down and poured every last coin and dollar out, doll shoes and dinosaurs falling into the lap of a man who laughed as I blushed and pulled them out. He looked about my age.

My partner gently reminded me that I could not save them all, and at any rate, did I know where my money was going? Still, as we came across yet another panhandler, this one with a long story explaining how she needed a train ticket home, he didn’t hesitate to dig into his pocket and pull out what cash he had left, which was about three dollars. As we walked away we heard her mutter sarcastically, “Gee, weren’t you thoughtful?”
A week later I saw her hustling a different part of the city.

With the line between the destitute and the deceitful so blurred it can be difficult to decipher when someone on the street is truly in need. My solution?
Give when you feel compelled.
Give when you feel like ‘a joyful giver’ in whom the Lord rejoices. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Give when your heart has stirred, when the desire is instantaneous.
Give before you compose a battery of reasons not to.

This sounds easy enough, but as Christians we are accustomed to deconstructivism. We are actively encouraged to question; question our texts, our faith, our hearts. Therefore, it is all too easy to find ourselves running the recipients of our compassion through the same tests.
‘Is this person an alcoholic?’
‘Are they lazy and just refuse to work?’
‘Will they spend my money the right way?’

All of this questioning can often overshadow what should be our instinctual reaction as Christians, which is to lift one another up and embrace all in unconditional love. (Matthew 5: 43-48)

Brothers and sisters, let us not question one another.

My native Washington DC is a city of 632,000 with more than 18,500 of those inhabitants reported as homeless. It is home to the largest income gap in the nation as well as the highest rate of family poverty. 33% of its homeless population is composed of families, a number that continues to rise due to the ongoing recession. I do not know their stories. I do not know if their homes were foreclosed upon or if they have received state assistance for decades. I do know that statistics tell me most of them are working and that more than half self identify as Christian. I know that I am called to Good, especially to those in Christ, that to love them is to love Him, you know this, we know this, we are all beautifully wonderfully made. (Galatians 6: 10)

We do not need to know the motives or the hearts of our street-stricken brethren; that is for Christ alone. We need only to know our own.

For me, this means to remember John 7:24;
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

As a people we are instructed to seek wisdom and insight and to employ sound judgment. However, it is all too often that we equate the instruction to be wise with our money with being discerning as to where and to whom we give it, rather than the state of our hearts when we do so. It is all too easy to dress our discretion in faux concern, when what we truly mean is,
‘will this person use my money in a way I will agree with? Do they live a lifestyle of which I approve?’

But panhandlers and the homeless need not seek our approval; any money in our purse belongs to God and Him alone. The Bible holds more than 300 verses instructing us to serve the poor, but just how to do that is often confusing. In an attempt to not equate my way with the ‘Biblical way’, I do the only thing I feel I can: I give the benefit of the doubt. I have material possessions and a brother in need, and with the love of God within me, I must take pity on him and not with words, but with action and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)

Whether and how we give money is more important than how a recipient uses it. He answers for his actions and we for ours. Our goal in giving should be to share faith as an experience from which we all benefit. A dollar placed in an empty palm may seem insignificant, but it speaks to our greater truths,
“I am doing the best I can. We are all in desperate need.”

To give or not to give

So this is the blog entry in which I finally get around to answering the question: “When should one give and not give money [to beggars/panhandlers]?”

Drumroll, please!

Upon consideration, there is not one complicated answer to this question, but 3 simple answers:

  1. One ought always to give money to those who ask.
  2. One ought never to give money to those who ask.
  3. One ought sometimes to give money to those who ask.

It may appear that I am trying to wiggle my way out of answering the question.  Instead, I want to begin answering it by denying that it is possible for me to answer the question in a general way, as I am a particular human with a particular life narrative, living within a particular community of particlar humans with their own particular ways of growing in their relationship with God.

And before I make that denial, I want to at the same time make an affirmation: that those who ask for money are themselves particular human beings who ask for particular reasons, reasons that may be different from the reasons they themselves asked yesterday or last week.  They live in particular cities and towns at particular points in time.  They have particular histories, and a limited set of choices available to them which are particular to them.

I built the groundwork for this affirmation yesterday with a blog post which gestured at the diversity of those who are homeless and do not panhandle, as well as the diversity amongst the poor in America.

We are all in this together – and each of us is unique.

So – to that end, over the next couple of weeks, I will be soliciting answers to this question from particular Christians – people whose decision on whether and when to give is rooted in their relationship with God, with people in living in poverty, and with people who have worked with people living in poverty.  And I will share my own answer to this question, too.

Each of us answers this question out of our own understanding of God, even as we are convinced that we live our answer in community, and that we are called to live in love and peace with one another.  It is not a contest or a debate – the goal is not to demonstrate who has the strongest argument, so that the reader can then go and do likewise.  Rather, my hope is that after you read a diversity of narratives, you too will be empowered to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” 

Poverty under wraps

There are so many ways to become homeless.

For instance, when a young man was preparing to be released from jail (for a non-violent, non-drug related crime, incidentally), he had to figure out where he was going to live. His brother invited him to come stay with him. What my friend did not realize was that his brother was living with 3 other roommates – and almost all of them were abusing drugs. Not the sort of situation you want to be in at any time, but especially not when you are on probation. In a city he was unfamiliar with, not yet having a job, with very little savings, and a criminal record that he had to report on any rental application, he was not going to find an apartment overnight. He decided that the shelter was a better option than living with his brother or living in the woods, so he got a bed in the shelter, and people who worked there were able to help him get an apartment and apply for veteran’s benefits to go back to school.

For instance, when a chemical engineer was laid off, she had trouble finding a new job, and lived for awhile off of her savings. Just after her COBRA benefits expired, her husband, who had always done the finances for the family, had an expensive hospitalization followed by a lengthy convalescence, and lost his job as well. The mortgage went unpaid for a couple of months, and the house was foreclosed on. Because it was summer time, they decided that the best way to preserve their meager savings in case they had still had not found jobs before the days grew colder was for themselves and their two teenage daughters to camp in park campgrounds. They would stay until they reached the limit of allowable days (usually a week or two), and then pack the tent into their station wagon, and drive to the next park, all the while interviewing for jobs.

For instance, when a growing season ended and the fields were picked over, a family of farmworkers left the leaky roofed shack with no electricity and no plumbing that was “included!” in their wages, and crowded into a van with another family, hoping to find work further north working other fields, picking other crops, living in another featureless lean-to. They hoped that they would not be stopped, because no one in the car had a driver’s license. They had crossed the border looking for jobs that were better then what they could find in Mexico – but which paid less than is legal to pay citizens of the United States.

For instance, when a young woman who had been treated unsuccessfully for depression for many years was overcome by her illness, she stopped going to work, then stopped eating, and finally stopped getting out of bed. She was evicted from her apartment, and found herself living in a car until a family friend discovered her situation and invited her to live with their family. She went from car to house, but it was not her home – insofar as she was now subject to the rules and rhythms of a household very different from the one she had grown up in. The chipper insistence of the well-meaning couple with little understanding of mental illness that she “look on the bright side!!” was oppressive. But the only alternatives she could think of were suicide or a return to her car. Until, finally one day, she didn’t understand how, she found she had the strength to apply for a job bagging groceries. Getting out of the house, meeting new people, and receiving a paycheck, she accepted a new friend’s offer of a ride to the county mental health clinic. There she was put on a medication that she hadn’t tried before. Maybe it would work this time.

For instance, when an eager young college graduate moved to a city he had long dreamed of living in, he soon discovered that the cost of living there was impossibly high. Working two 30-hour a week jobs was not enough to prevent him from illegally sharing a studio apartment with 12 other people. When that became unsustainable, he moved into a friend’s car. Too ashamed of his “failure” to confess the truth, his weekly phone calls to his parents from a public phone were filled with tales of how he was enjoying life in the big city. One day, he saw a young couple he assumed to be tourists, who had just walked out of the Ben & Jerry’s in a chic shopping district. Frustration overcame him, and he followed them down the street chanting, “I wish I could have an ice cream cone, but I can’t! I’m too poor for an ice cream cone. Nobody’s buying me any ice cream cones!” He couldn’t have known that they, too, had just moved to the city in great hopefulness, only to have spent three weeks living in a run-down residential hotel, unable to afford an apartment. This outing had been something that they had looked forward to for more than a week.

There are many more ways of becoming homeless – losing one’s home in a natural disaster, addiction, schizophrenia, PTSD, fleeing an abusive relationship, being kicked out of the house because of being an abuser oneself… and so much more.

And there are many more people who are poor without being homeless. There are the working poor and the elderly poor and the disabled poor… the not good enough English poor and the not white enough skin poor… the raised with low expectations poor and the raised with unreasonable expectations poor… the rural poor and the urban poor… poor single moms and poor single dads, and poor grandparents raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I wonder: does roadside begging make all of this poverty any more visible to anyone?

If we wish to urge the City of Durham not to hide poverty, perhaps we ought to shut down 147 for a week, and route all the traffic through East Durham.

Nonetheless, so long as panhandlers are not actively obstructing traffic – so long as they do not walk into the street, nor stop cars at green lights, I increasingly fail to see the argument for banning roadside panhandling – morally, it is a justice issue; legally, it is a free speech issue. On public property, aren’t we allowed to say nearly anything? Even if it is, “Can you spare $2 for ‘bus fare’?”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not we ought to give money to those who ask for it, it seems we must let them ask.