Here’s how it happened for me. I would be walking down the street and see someone asking passersby for money, and a flood of possibilities as to my response would crash around in my head.
Do I hand over a dollar and feel good about it? Do I toss them my change and worry that it will be ill spent? Do I rationalize keeping my wallet shut by thinking that I don’t want to make it profitable to sit on a sidewalk all day? Do I keep walking and pretend I didn’t hear or see them? Do I answer that I don’t have any change to spare at the moment? Does it matter whether I do or not? Do I stop and buy them lunch instead? Do I look them in the eye?
Is there any possible way to get to the other side of this intersection and feel good about what I chose? Why is this person doing this to me? I’m just walking to work, I don’t want to have to think about all these things right now. I’m running late and I don’t want to have to decide. Why do I have to?
At various times, I acted on every one of these responses and probably more. It’s one of the most persistent moral dilemmas for city dwellers who have some resources. How should I react to people on the street asking for money? On one level, the answer seems easy. What is a dollar to me, really? I think I can make it if I lighten my wallet by that much, and it might make the difference for whether this person eats or not. I think I should probably hand over this dollar. And I’ll probably feel guilty if I don’t.
But it’s never that simple, is it?
We all know that many people on the street struggle with addiction, and it’s so easy to see that dollar going for booze or drugs rather than food or shelter or bus fare. And that can bother us enough to hold back and not give it away after all. Or make us feel guilty if we do give some change. Oh no, I’m just feeding their habit. I’m not really helping after all.
Of course, we also think, panhandling is dangerous and keeps people from doing other things, so there’s no reason to encourage it. Dropping a quarter in someone’s cup could mean they spend another day out in the elements, and no one really wants that. This has made me feel guilty for giving too.
To tell you the truth, I used to feel more than guilty. I used to feel heartbroken by the fact that there are people in wealthy, developed countries who have to beg on the streets. I would walk down the street devastated by the state of our society and of us as individuals that we would allow this to happen. More often than not, I wouldn’t give to panhandlers, because all I could think in my heartbroken state is that it wouldn’t make a difference. Giving a dollar or not wouldn’t help at all, because what was wrong was so much bigger and deeper and longer-lasting than my little choice of what to do with my change. And it made me feel awful, just awful a whole lot of the time. So I took the only logical step. I started working in homeless services. And now I walk down the street and don’t feel terrible any more.
So there you are, friends: the answer to that daily dilemma that’s been tugging at your heart strings is to quit your job and spend a year serving breakfast on the streets.
No, that’s probably not the answer. For one thing, there aren’t enough non-profit jobs for everyone. Practically it just wouldn’t work. And truly, I do not know how you are supposed to spend your life. I know I I’m profoundly grateful for that year serving breakfast. It formed me in important ways and affirmed a lot of my suspicions about how I should spend my life. But it’s probably not what everyone needs to do.
What I really think is that interactions with people who have different life situations from ours is profoundly important. As uncomfortable as it is, it makes us recognize that the world is bigger than our daily to-do list, and, if we’re lucky, makes us think about how we’re living and how we can live better in a world that contains both people like us and people not like us. Here’s something to think about – it’s not pleasant for anyone to sit on a street corner and ask for money. I’ve heard that this act of swallowing your pride to beg from strangers is incredibly painful, and I know that there are some people who could definitely use your spare change who will never ask for it because of that. If we recognize that, when someone asks you for money, it can be a moment to see each others’ humanity instead of just feeling bad.
There are no easy answers for whether you should give the guy on the corner your change or not. If it makes you feel bad that he’s even asking, it’s because it’s a terrible thing to live in a place where not everyone has a roof over their head, and some people have so little and others have so much. It’s not the way things should be. We should take better care of each other, but we haven’t figured out how yet. That situation should make us feel bad, but it shouldn’t make us feel helpless or despairing. If nothing else, we can wish the guy on the corner good morning, donate to local service organizations, volunteer, cook for each other, and yes, maybe once in a while give someone a dollar to get on the bus. Even if you’d rather they didn’t ask, remember they’d rather not be asking too. On good days now, when I get asked for money, whether I give or not, I think, that’s right, we’re all in this together, I hope you stay safe, and I’ll remember to think about what I can do. Be well, be warm.
Here’s wishing you a safe and warm February evening.