You move along a sidewalk in a busy city. You can see your breath with each exhale. A homeless man comes into view leaning back on the building ahead.
a) Avert your eyes and keep walking? It’s as if not seeing him, makes him not real.
b) Drop a few dollars in his upturned hat…with little or no eye contact? It relieves the guilt of not doing more.
c) Hand him a gift card to McDonald’s or a “homeless survival kit” in a ziplock bag? It feels more responsible than giving cash. Don’t the homeless just use the $$ for alcohol and drugs?
d) Invite him to have breakfast with you? Time to hear his story and share a meal offers a brief moment of human touch.
All of these scenarios are me. All of them speak to my struggle on how to care for those around me. Many, many opinions exist on these options.
I confess that I have walked passed homeless men and women…pretending to be deep in thought or in conversation. It’s a sad statement of my own discomfort and brokenness. I don’t like this response in me. I am trying to be more attentive to the needs around me.
Keeping a few dollars in my pocket allows me to be able to give, easily. But is this really the goal? Ease? But it does ease the guilt of doing nothing. Some homeless advocates, however, strongly oppose these hand-outs. It removes initiative and dignity from the recipient, they say.
But the scriptures call us to give. They don’t say to give to those who have a productive plan. We are to be generous to those who have a need.
Giving a McDonald’s gift card presumes that the homeless man is hungry. Giving a “survival kit” assumes he needs soap, deodorant, granola bar, and socks. Maybe he needs money for medication…? Or, maybe he is a professional panhandler who will get up at the end of the day and walk to his car with the $300 he “earned” that day.
But… maybe hot coffee and a meal will bring needed comfort to someone whose life is a constant struggle.
Sharing a meal together offers value beyond the food itself. Listening to someone’s story affirms their significance. Listening with judgment, however, demeans and shames.
When in New York City a few years ago, we frequently invited homeless men and women to lunch and dinner. Over a burger, salad, or breakfast bagel, we heard the difficult circumstances of their lives (both past and present). A hand on the shoulder and brief time for prayer frequently brought tears to eyes …theirs and ours.
But they returned to the street and we to our comfortable lodging.
Is there another way?
An invitation. Stop and talk, then extend your hand to help. Know what your city offers for the homeless and the under-resourced population.
Over the years, for example, we have served several times with a ministry that reaches out year-round to the homeless population in Philadelphia. They host meals, conversation, and a thriving AA chapter among other ministries. When walking on Kensington Avenue, this is a place to which I can invite a homeless man or woman. Their connection can bring dramatic transformation.
A relationship. Stop and talk, then extend your heart to help. Give time to mentor and encourage him or her in the context of responsible, proven ministry. Restoration requires time and effort on many fronts. Going it solo, however, does not have a good success rate.
A calling. If the Lord prompts you to give money, a gift card, or hygiene kits, please do so! But if you are giving out of guilt or pride, it may be best to hold on to your funds.
So…should you give cash to a homeless person? It’s really not such a simple question. But neither is life. But then, we know that God created us to be in community… with one another and with himself. Restoration of these relationships will bring the ultimate healing for which we all seek.
1) Research your city’s resources. Know where to refer people. Consider sharing your gifts and talents to help the ministries and organizations.
2) Read about ways to truly help the under-resourced people in your community and beyond:
Toxic Charity (Robert Lupton)
When Helping Hurts (Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert)
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Ronald J. Sider)
3) Pray and seek God’s leading to begin something new in your community!