Sunday, November 2, 2014

Giving to Panhandlers: A Christian Dilemma

I've been thinking a lot about panhandlers lately.

Honestly, I wanted to avoid writing this. Giving or not giving to people on the street is such an emotionally-charged topic, especially among Christians who are ultra-aware of scriptures about helping the poor and needy.

When the topic of helping the poor comes up in a Sunday School class, in conversation with friends, or even in Elder Holland's most recent General Conference talk, I feel a gnawing sense of discomfort.

That's because I have this idea that there's a more or less common consensus on the "correct" opinion for a Christian to have, which is that it's our obligation to hand money to everyone who asks no matter what. If they use it to buy booze or drugs, that's none of my business. What's important is that I give.

But there's just one problem: I disagree.

I believe in Christ, and I believe it's my duty and privilege to help the needy. But I don't give money to panhandlers. We decided a long time ago to help them in a different way.

My family was approached by people asking for money a lot when we spent 5 years living near the downtown area of Columbus, Ohio. We were your stereotypical poor grad students, only with more mouths to feed. Our family of five lived 20% below the federal poverty limit, so getting approached by panhandlers as often as two or three times a week was a big deal to us.

Stuttering "Sorry, I don't have any cash" felt wrong, especially if I was lying. For a person who believes that learning to help and serve others is one of the purposes of life, saying "no" and walking away from a beggar was obviously not the right thing to do.

Sometimes I gave whatever change I had, but I still felt uneasy afterward. Was it going to help? Was I just enabling an addiction? Was I being conned when we had so very little ourselves? Hard as I tried to feel good about it, handing out cash to strangers just didn't sit well with me.

As I wrestled with the question, I looked for answers in the scriptures. One of the first verses I read was Matthew 5: 42 in the Bible:
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
So that idea that we should give indiscriminately, this is where it comes from. I filed it away in my head and kept reading.

In the Book of Mormon, I came across Mosiah 4: 16-18:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance until him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. 
I looked again at the verses in Mosiah, noticing the phrases "him that standeth in need" and "turn him out to perish." Like the other scriptures I read about the poor, the author took for granted the fact that street beggars are so desperately in need that they will literally die without the kindness of strangers.

It occurred to me that likewise when Matthew wrote about giving "to those that asketh of thee," he was living in a time and place where there were no welfare programs or soup kitchens or Toys for Tots. The poor either sat outside the temple in Jerusalem begging for money, or they starved by the side of the road.

Today where I live, people can walk into any emergency room and receive treatment regardless of whether they can pay. They can visit food pantries and apply for SNAP and Medicaid and housing vouchers and free school lunches. None of that was an option in Bible times.

According to a 2013 report from the Census Bureau, 98% of the households living in poverty had a fridge, 96% had a stove, and 93% had a microwave. 80% had cell phones and 96% had a TV. It dawned on me that my family was technically living in poverty during our time in Columbus, yet we were never in danger of going hungry.

We live in a culture of such extreme privilege that even the most modest lifestyles (by today's standards) would dazzle most of the people who have ever lived on this planet. Sometimes I don't even think we know the difference between needs and wants anymore.

In the homeless shelter where my friend Jane volunteered as a teenager, there were three rules: no fighting, no drugs, and you had to be looking for a job. Jane watched a lot of people get kicked out of the shelter, or choose to leave, because they didn't obey the rules.

She knew of others who refused to come to the shelter in the first place because of the restrictive requirements, and chose to stay on the streets panhandling instead.

I didn't doubt that it was my Christian duty to help people in need, but I couldn't define who was "in need," or for that matter, whether blindly throwing money at them was actually "helping."

After many in-depth conversations, Phillip and I finally decided what we were going to do when people asked us for money. We were going to simply say, "Sorry, I don't give money to people I don't know, but I do want to help. What can I do for you?" And then we would do it.

That simple decision liberated me. No more lingering icky feelings when I gave or didn't give money. I could offer my help, and have it be received.

Since then I've paid for people's bus fare, bought fast food, picked up extra groceries, and sometimes when Phillip was with me (I never felt it was safe to do as a woman driving alone) given rides, all to people who originally approached me asking for money.

picture by Dovile Cizaite
In those instances, I never felt bad about time or money spent because I knew it was actually helping someone. It was always worth the sacrifice to help my brothers and sisters on this earth meet their needs.

But those were the good experiences, and they were few and far between.

Four times out of five when I promised fast food to a hungry panhandler, they were gone when I returned. This was at a time when we were so "poor" ourselves that I would go home saying a silent prayer that God would bless us to get by without the $5 that this stupid Subway sandwich cost us  which was more than our entire family's food budget for the whole day.

When my children and I saw a man at a stoplight holding a cardboard sign that read "need a sandwich," we ducked in a corner cafe to get him one. When I gave him the bag he gave me a funny look, said thanks, set it down on the ground beside him, and kept on waving his "need a sandwich" sign at the oncoming traffic. I couldn't believe it. He wasn't even hungry.

Another time when we gave the "we don't give money to people we don't know but can we help you" line to a woman asking for money at the park, she explained she needed gas money. But when we offered to drive her to the gas station and fill up her car, she explained that actually her car was in the shop so she really just needed some money to get it out.

When we offered to drive her to the shop and pay for the repairs, she told us that the repair was going to take a while and what she really needed was money for a hotel room. When we offered to drive her to a hotel and pay for a room she tried one last time, telling us that she was diabetic and needed some money for food. This was starting to get ridiculous. After we offered to go buy her some food, she just gave up on us and walked away.

What I learned from my personal experience in Columbus was that most of the time I was asked for money, the person asking didn't really want my help. In fact, they were often disappointed or frustrated that I actually wanted to help them instead of just fork over cash and go away.

What I liked about our answer to panhandlers is that offering to do anything except give money helped us to discern what their needs really were  or whether they had any at all.

Right about now, I'm pretty sure some people are shouting at their computers that I'm a terrible person to suggest that panhandlers are all just con artists. I'm not saying that none of them have legitimate needs. I know some of them do. And in those cases, their needs are usually better served by getting them the things they need than by giving them money.

On a cold morning a few days before Easter, Phillip and I were driving through the city when a woman who was obviously mentally ill darted in front of our moving car asking for money. After we asked what she needed and she said she was hungry and cold, we drove her to McDonald's and ordered her a meal to eat in the warmth of the restaurant.

It made me sick to leave her, wishing I could do more. Thinking back, I wish I'd given her my coat. I wish we'd thought to find a shelter, drive her there, and secure her a place for the night.

I have regrets about that day, but not giving her money isn't one of them. I'm not sure she would've had the mental wherewithal to use it to meet her needs, anyway. As it was, we made sure that she at least ate a meal and got out of the cold for a few hours.

Maybe that's the best we could do. I believe in helping people. I believe in doing what I can to meet their needs. I'm not convinced that giving money is the best way to do that.

My views on responding to panhandlers may continue evolving, but for now I feel peace with the way I've decided to help to those who ask it of me.

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7 comments:

  1. This is a very thought post and more people should read it and follow your advice.

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  2. I once did ankle surgery on a patient that I later saw panhandling at Walmart a couple of weeks later. I was pretty upset that she wasn't following my post operative instructions. There she was, STANDING on her cast in the cold, because getting a few bucks was obviously more important to her than healing well.

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  3. I love this post! I had a Sunday school teacher (who was told this by a mentor of his own) that would give panhandlers a food voucher to McD's and his business card, guaranteeing them a job if they showed up at a certain time. Since I don't have a business, I like the idea you and your husband came up with - getting to the heart of the person's immediate need and helping in the moment if possible.

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  4. I read some similar great ideas from friends at a church we used to go to - keep bags in your car pre-stocked with a few non-perishable foods, gift cards to Subway or other similar restaurants with some healthy alternatives, toothpaste and small soaps, etc. I recently passed a woman with a sign saying "homeless mom of 4" - I got out my wallet and gave her some money. I handed my wallet to my teenage daughter to hold and asked her "should I give more? the only other money I had was a $20...but I don't want it to go to drugs or alcohol." I was half-way across the toll-bridge a few minutes later when I realized I had missed an opportunity to give the mom a $50 Wal-mart gift card that I had in my wallet, which could have bought a lot of children's clothes and foods.

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  5. I think that your approach is wonderful - and the right thing to do. I have always supported charities (in the UK) such as Shelter and Crisis, instead of giving money to individuals, but often feel that I should do more - in a practical sense, as you have chosen to do. Sadly, on occasions where my husband and I have offered something practical (e.g. food rather than money), it has often been refused, they have wanted money for something else, and enabling addictions isn't helping anyone. It's a really tough one. I hate walking past, but I can't afford to help everyone and if you start, where do you stop? I like the idea of having a stock of vouchers or small bags of essentials on hand. Really thought provoking post Jenny, thank you so much for sharing with #ThePrompt x

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    1. It's so sad when that happens and your actual help is refused. I've heard people suggest keeping things like granola bars or meal vouchers in their cars for such an occasion.

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  6. Really good stuff. This gave me some good insight! Our go to has been to give if the spirit tells you so. Then the only guilt is if you don't follow through with it. Let me tell you a story. Once, in Franklinton, a man knocked at our door asking for money. This was common. This time though, was my first to deal with a true con man. I don't even remember his story, it's been pushed our if my mind for a reason. It involved also preying on our mentally disabled neighbor across the street. I think I ended up giving him 40 bucks and he even gave me his coat as a promise he'd be right back to pay me back the money. He never came back. I went upstairs and cried and felt so violated, which is something I rarely feel. It was a good lesson to learn increased empathy for all those who are taken advantage of to an a greater, terrible, degree. My ever supportive husband calmed my fears and told me it was alright and I asked him to go throw the coat away. It was an interesting night that changed the way my younger self looked at the world. I still have money to people that came along but I was way more in tune with what the spirit told me about it! Anyway just felt like sharing that...Thanks for your ever insightful/uplifting/fun/spiritual posts on life!

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