“For ye have the poor always with you” — a quandry about homeless men

No judgment, none at all, or at least for the space of this post because it is a whole lot harder in the real world. By which I include the 7-11 across the street where there is usually a small crowd of panhandlers. Or I can go behind my building the other way to the CVS and the Whole Foods and see the same, but the men (and a few women) are not identical and interchangable. There is usually a particular confident and put-together man selling Street Sense; one man with a respirator and a bundle of incense; and another offering his services to paint your house. Not all are mentally ill or addicted, I’m sure, but I see the bottles and know someone’s been hitting cheap bottles of vodka. Perhaps not all are homeless, but the area, though increasingly affulent, has three homeless person’s shelters within walking distance. The poor and afflicted are very much with us here in Logan Circle.

So what do you do if you’re not poor and not particularly afflicted? Hubby has homeless services on his resume, and I served a church here in the city, so I think we’re probably ahead of the curve but I’m still troubled. The big question is about giving money. Neither Hubby nor I give money on the street; in part, I don’t think it is wise to trade in money on the street. But there is a tension between thinking any money given would do no good, knowing that the problems they face cannot be addressed by fifty cents or a dollar, and feeling that the Gospel doesn’t care that they may use the money unwisely (but is concerned with responding to a plea.) And there’s the feeling you’re being used, and that you just don’t want to be bothered.

From there, the quandry just gets deeper and murkier. Feel free to comment below. J. D. at Get Rich Slowly considers this matter, and got me thinking again: Beggars on the Streets of San Francisco

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

3 thoughts on ““For ye have the poor always with you” — a quandry about homeless men

  1. Just started following your blog, thanks to Beauty Tips for Ministers…
    I have spent lots of time wondering about the same questions, and trying to act appropriately, and to follow the Gospel.
    Most of my friends who do direct service social work tell me that giving money directly is not a good thing; if they’re struggling with addiction, it’s one more chance for them to act out, and if not, it keeps them in the loop of panhandling.
    But at the same time, I’ve seen through friends and people I know who have been homeless or sunk deep in poverty how difficult it is to get out of that situation — even if you want a job, you don’t own a suit, you don’t have a home address, etc. etc. And so I tend to err towards giving rather than not. Even if it’s for cigarettes — after all, I just spent two bucks on a latte, or three bucks for ice cream, or fifteen bucks on a cd…are there not cases where someone who’s facing a tough time already deserves a little bit of a luxury, even if its not the “best” thing for them?
    In practice, I tend to do three things: first, I never ignore them; sometimes an apology (“I can’t today” might mean that you economically can’t, or that you can’t because you don’t think it would be right for them in good conscience ((

  2. Sorry, lost half of the rest of the comment….(made the mistake of using an arrow).
    But an apology, using good Jesuit casuistry, can be as helpful as money.
    Second, my church has little business cards with the time of our weekly free meal, and many major urban areas do a similar thing. This can provoke some hostility, I find, but I alwasy keep some in my wallet or bag.
    Third, and most often, people asking for help in my neighborhood tend to wait outside of the CVS or 7-11, or similar stores. I often tell the white lie that I don’t have any cash, but am buying things with my card, and then ask if I can get them something to drink or eat. You spend more than you would if you just gave change, but you also know that you’re helping them out with their physical needs. Plus, the white lie preserves a certain amount of their dignity. You’re not saying directly “I don’t trust you not to spend cash on booze, so I’m going to get you what I know is best for you”; this allows you to follow your conscience in not supporting destructive behavior, while not infantilizing the other human being you’re helping. I’ve bought a lot of orange juice, sandwiches, and cigarettes this way…
    Now, you can argue that all I’m doing is further helping their material needs so that they can spend what cash they do have on booze or drugs…but this is why I don’t study ethics for a living. And the encounters always leave me uncomfortable. But I think that’s part of their ministry to us, to make us uncomfortable, and to show through that discomfort that our lives where most things work out is partly the result of our effort, but more often the result of what has been given to us, and of the structures which often benefit us by not helping others. The concrete discomfort of a human being in need is a good way to pop our self-images as good little boys and girls who have worked hard to get where we are.
    Sorry for the long (and split in half) comment, but I’ve enjoyed your blog, and think that this is an important question!

  3. Scott – Good, tough questions. When I lived in the Bronx, I kept a small stash of nonperishable food in my backpack, to give to my (many, many) homeless neighbors. I’m now less confronted with homelessness (in Nashville) but have become more willing to give money, and not worry too much about what happens with it. Heck, if I was mentally ill and on the street, I might want a cigarette and a drink….. It’s an important, uncomfortable issue, and I can’t seem to ever come to an approach that I feel unambigiously OK with. Thanks for raising this.

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