Driving home from work, I regularly see panhandlers standing at the freeway off-ramp. I hesitate to find Christ in them or give them money. For one thing, it’s a dangerous place to stand. I’m suspicious about how my money will be spent. It could be a scam. Plus I do plenty of other charitable works.Most days it’s someone different. But there’s one “regular,” a young man with varying cardboard signs. Guilt used to fill me as I tried not to make eye contact and drove past. “I can’t help every homeless person in my path,” a voice in my head said.
“But you have so much,” another inner voice countered. At home I stocked my glove box with a granola bar and a bottled water. That would be better than money, right?
When I offered the water, he chugged it immediately. Gratitude was obvious. But how could I remember to restock my glove box every day?
The next time I saw him, I had nothing to give. His sign said, “Grateful for anything except dirty looks.”
I smiled; he smiled back. I rolled down the window. “Great sign,” I said.
I can’t remember our brief conversation, but I looked to the passenger seat to see if I had anything to give. I saw an old umbrella, and rain was predicted. I have others, but this one was a gift from a previous employer. I hesitated only a moment and asked if he could use it. He nodded. Soon I saw my umbrella above his smiling face.
That night it poured in Sacramento. I thought of my beloved umbrella, but more, I prayed for homeless people sleeping out that night.
Someone told me that Pope Francis encouraged us to give money to homeless people, without worrying about how they spend it. I decided for one month to give a dollar to every homeless person I met. I never expected a transformation to take place inside me.
I began to see people as deep joy took root in me with each dollar given. My fear of being overwhelmed by hands out was unfounded. In fact, I had to look for cups in front of downcast eyes that turned up with surprise when I gave my pittance.
It felt good. But more than that, I was no longer judgmental or afraid. I was reminded of a quote associated with St. Vincent de Paul: “It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
I continued to watch for Christ in the disguise of the homeless poor. A few days later, I saw him. The young man at the freeway off-ramp had a new sign: “Hit me with a quarter, and I’ll be glad.” He was looking at his phone. I reached out with a dollar. I asked his name and gave mine.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
“My mom in Reno.”
The light changed, and I drove off.
For days, no one was at the off-ramp. Another homeless fellow said days later that the police were passing out fines. My thoughts surprised me: “Where is my friend?”
I don’t know what’s going to happen next in this one-minute-at-a-stoplight relationship.
Giving something to someone in need “is always right,” the Pope said. It should be done with respect and compassion while looking into the person’s eyes.
A unique human being. A potential friend. An instrument of my salvation.
Join in 31 Days with St. Ignatius with today’s entry, Little Gestures. Follow along everyday this month here and on social media #31DayswithIgnatius.
The first time I was sent to work in a foreign country I and my companions were advised not to give cash to persons who beg around the streets. The government had the proper organizations and offices who were caring for them. Instead we referred or accompanied them for the proper connections.
This method even saved them from the people who were using them.
Beautiful reminder of our shared humanity. Thank you for your storytelling and the Godly insights you share.
I don’t think we can say to always give or not give. We need to allow ourselves to listen to what the Holy Spirit is placing on our heart. That will be a sure sign of what we must do.
I have always believed that giving something to a beggar is not about worrying about how they may use it, but a recognition of our shared humanity. I,may be “the only gospel” that individual may see at that time. Isn’t that what Jesus is calling us to be?
Pope Francis has many interesting things to say but not everything he says is infallible. I question his wisdom in advising we give to beggars without considering how it will be spent. Whatever happened to being good stewards with what we have? Or how about considering we are acting as enablers when we help fuel a person’s addiction? As the mother of an adult son who has battled addiction and who almost lost his life on more than one occasion, I cringe when I read about people handing over money and then savoring a feel good moment. Give to a shelter, to a food bank, to a rehab facility. Give food and nutritious beverages to those begging, or perhaps your coat or umbrella, but please, do not feed their habit. In doing so you are helping to purchase the means with which they will kill themselves. Of course, not everyone who begs is an addict, but our family knows from very painful experience that the majority who are addicted will turn to begging and crime to pay for their habit.
— which means that a minority, perhaps a sizable minority, won’t use your money to feed their habit. Sorry, I agree with Pope Francis on this question. I don’t make a judgment in deciding whether to give a dollar or two to a panhandler; sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I never judge and fwiw I don’t give “to savor a feel-good moment.”
I have a testimony for you of how God can talk to us, even through those homeless people.
Summer 2015: I was jobless, homeless and penniless myself but has a roof over my head because my former landlady (turned a friend by the grace of God) accepted to welcome me back into her house, rent free. I was so distressed at that time in my life that I would wake up every day, disappointed to notice that I was still alive.
An older friend of mine was celebrating her 55th birthday and I had to attend the celebration, a 3 hr drive from where I was living. So I booked my rideshare trip from Quebec City to Montreal. Once in Montreal, at one subway station, I tried to call my mom who lives overseas. I didn’t have a cell phone so I had to use the very few remaining payphones that exist in the city. I was looking for 50ct when I heard a voice behind me telling me: “You can use my phone.”
I was surprised because I’m from sub-Saharan Africa, my society is all about helping each other, especially beggars (God’ll reward you) but things were so different in Canada. People are more individualistic and I have never ever had a stranger suggesting to help me for anything on the streets. So I turned around and it was an homeless person who was offering me, his phone. I thought to myself: “Wow, even homeless people have cell phones, when you Anna, can’t even afford a prepaid plan.” I politely declined but he insisted by telling me that we’re humans and we could all help each other. So I took his phone, made my phone then proposed to pay back the 50ct and he refused.
Then he looked at me and say in French: “You shouldn’t cry like that” (“Faut pas pleurer comme ça”). I froze and asked him what did he say. He repeated it and I asked him why did he say that. He told me that it was the title of a song. He started singing it. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the lyrics, even the title of the song.
The truth was that the day before the song, I cried my eyes out to the Lord for exactly one hour. I know it was exactly one hour because all of a sudden, I was overcome by a comfort I’ve never felt before. Yet, I was still sad. Through the mouth of this homeless guy, Serge who had spent the night before our encounter in prison, the Lord spoke to me. He was almost crying when he was explaining how the police picked him up.
My friend’s birthday celebration was at the church so I asked Serge if he was a believer. He said yes, I asked him to come with me but he said that he was too drunk. Actually, although he smelled alcohol, he didn’t seem that drunk to me. Anyway, that day, he wanted to go to the McDonald. I only had 10$ on me and I gladly gave it to him.
My mother raised me in Africa with the idea that anyone can become a homeless person, even an engineer. So it’s a good thing to help if you can because you don’t know that person’s situation. Not all homeless people are addict. Some of these people would even buy alcohol, not because they have an addiction but sometimes to dull the pain of their loneliness, their condition. Before I came to Canada, I used to give money to homeless people, without worrying about how they spend it (I lived for a decade in Western Europe before). When I get to Canada, my younger cousin saw me doing it and told me: “You don’t even know what he’s gonna do with it.” I told her that it was fine and that I trust God.
Let’s be very careful not to presume that we know what’s best for other people and that money won’t help some of these people! The truth is that these people want to be treated and looked at with dignity, consideration. How many of us even take the time to stop, look them in the eyes, smile at them and talk with them? We assume straight ahead that they’re all addicts, that we’re being responsible for not giving them the 2$ who might help them buy the apple they’re gonna eat for the whole day (that’s another story but saw it with my own eyes at the grocery store).
If what you have to give is only money, give it! Then, let God take care of the rest. After all, he knows more about that homeless people’s needs than our 30s assessment.
Oh, Anna! I really needed to hear this. Thank you very much for writing. I loved how you said:
Let’s be very careful not to presume that we know what’s best for other people.
I continue to struggle with what God calls me to do.
Your post reminds me how generous God is to me, and I am invited to lavish that on others.
I don’t want to be like the unmerciful servant in Jesus’s parable: (Matthew 18:21) who grabbed someone who owed him money, after HE’D been forgiven a debt, and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
Let me never forget my own addiction to judging! God forgive me!
I am so touched by your reflection. I have a similar experience on my way to the Philadelphia airport. I always get some cash out ahead of time because there’s always a homeless person or more. Giving a dollar or two won’t break me and I always think: “There but for the grace of God go I.” or one of my loved ones. Thanks for sharing.
This is right on, Loretta! Once I was touring a visiting Daughter of Charity through SF. As we passed gentlemen staying on the streets she’d say in a gentle, respectful voice, “Good evening, Sir.” I have remembered it ever since. SO now I always try to greet folks living on the streets with the same respect I’d greet someone whom I’m meeting in a more formal setting. Works great whether or not I’m out of granola bars!
Thank Loretta, this hit the spot! I am one that usually looks away. Although lately, I find myself thinking more and more about those I pass by. I don’t know if its fear or just the pain I feel for them. I say a prayer for their mental health, as I know so much of homelessness is mental health. I don’t think this post this morning is any coincidence, as I now know that the next time I am at the grocery store I will take advantage of the BOGO specials as a “Buy one Give one” ! God Bless
My family and I pack Ziplock bags with packets of food to keep in our cars for people who are begging at stoplights. I try to talk with them if there is time and eye contact and smile are a must. My brother was homeless and alcoholic for years before he found faith and the strength to go into rehab. He sobered up, married and raised two truly wonderful sons. Because of this I rarely give money unless I sense a strong inner urging–but that is very rare. Love, dignity, food and water are the best gifts. And remember, “the first shall be last…”. I expect many of these “street people” to be first in heaven teaching me the ropes when I get there. My little happy thought is that I’ll have a fine greeting party when I get to heaven? Silly but somehow OK.
I know a local homeless person who has a daily amount of cash from begging at a freeway exit. He is truly troubled but also self-absorbed and entitled. My neighbor saw him at the store buying the big boxes of wine and then carrying them back on his bike. Do we give and trust God that we are still being used by Him? I wonder.
I work as the director of a homeless shelter. I know it makes people feel really good to give cash to panhandlers, but the truth is most of the time you’re fueling addiction. And it’s really not a moral “choice” the people are making to use the money for drugs or alcohol — the addiction controls their lives and has destroyed everything. That’s why they are in that situation. If you want to help, treat them with respect and listen to them. Give them a sandwich or a bottle of water, or a clean pair of socks. Volunteer at a shelter serving hearty suppers or helping people search for work. Donate to social service agencies that help people who suffer from addiction. I see so many people here fighting for sobriety. They get a little cash and are back using — and they hate themselves for it, but it’s just too strong. So your two or three dollars may make your conscious feel great, but most likely it’s actually helping someone stay addicted. I’m sorry to say that and probably will be blasted for doing so.
Totally agree. Thank you for this.
There are always people standing at the lights by the on and off ramps close to our downtown. If they are on my side, I always give them money. My rule is, if there is money in your wallet, you will share it. Sometimes it is only a couple of bucks, now and then it is a $20 bill. I so want to NOT give that, but I do. That went to a man standing while a woman with a toddler and a baby in a stroller sat on the ground. Who am I to decide who is honest and who is not? I do not have a lot of money, but I have enough to give more away. I can’t even imagine having to bed for money. If I ever need to, I pray others will be charitable.
Thank you for this post, Loretta! I, too, have a panhandling friend with whom I am on a first-name basis. A couple of times, during my lunch break, we have gone together to the local Chinese restaurant where I treat him to lunch, and we talk about our lives. There are long stretches of time when I don’t see him, and I worry and pray for him. (I can’t say that I would do this with every panhandler I meet, but it always gives me pause to remember my best friend’s brother who became homeless and died on the streets. We don’t think these people are like us, but they are!) Although I don’t carry money with me all the time, I always smile to those in need (and to all people I pass on the sidewalk who are brave enough to make eye contact), and I say, “Hello and God bless you!” I love when they say “And God bless you!” back to me! It’s as though we’re part of some secret revolution!
I also have an off ramp person to whom I try to give. We aren’t responsible for how they spend the money we give, but we are responsible for whether or not and how we give. I really appreciate your last line. There’s lots of food for thought in it: “An instrument of my salvation.” Do we ever think of other people as instruments of our salvation?
We are responsible for how they spend that money if we know we are most likely fueling an addiction that is destroying their lives. And that really is what is happening. I agree with you completely that being aware of how we give is essential. Give food, respect, time, or — if you can — give them a job. Please don’t hand them cash and think “Not my problem what you do with it.” Addiction is not a choice.
Agree.I think we are responsible to try to know them and what is happening to them, to the best of our capacity, and that means giving, time, presence and full attention beyond our comfort zone. Not an easy task. But Christ wants all of us.
Sometimes the most difficult people I encounter are the ones that cause me to grow.
Thanks for writing.