We’ve all seen the cardboard signs, some more creative than others. “Homeless. Anything helps. God Bless,” but then there are those that are slightly more creative and sometimes evoke a smile, or a couple of dollars, like the one I saw near my house a few weeks ago, “If you’re happy and you know it, give me money.” Since the ban on panhandling was lifted about a year ago, it’s almost impossible to drive anywhere without seeing someone flying a sign. It’s not just by the bridges and exit ramps downtown, but in the affluent suburbs, the places you would least expect to see someone claiming to be homeless.
Some people quickly roll down their window as they scrounge for change in the ashtray of their car or reach into their pocket for a couple of bills. Others refuse to make eye contact and grip the steering wheel as they stare at the traffic light waiting for it to change. When we encounter despair in such raw form, it evokes a variety of emotions; doesn’t it? When we’re sitting at that red light, we all feel something: sadness, guilt, generosity, pity, judgment, disgust, compassion. We wonder if they really need help. We wonder how loosely we should interpret the term “homeless.” And for those of us that are familiar with the myriad of social services available in our non-profit mecca of a city, we wonder why these people don’t seek help and choose to live a more purposeful and fruitful life.
To appease these emotions and questions some of us quickly find money before the light turns green, hear a “God bless you,” from the recipient, and drive away satisfied that we, did what we could. I’ve done it too. Countless times I have heard people making statements along the lines of, “What they do with their money is between them and God, I just want to help.” I’ve said it too. But when does helping hurt?
We simultaneously question the truth behind the cardboard as we pass out a few quarters- but does that solve anything more than our own conscience? Are we helping or just making ourselves feel good? Do these panhandlers question our motives as we question theirs?
Here’s what I do know:
Recently I heard of people living in the woods not far from my house. A few friends and I decided to take some bottles of water and granola bars and go exploring. We found what we were looking for, an encampment of about 20 – 25 people! Some simply took a bottle of water and said thank you, some let us know they didn’t want to be judged or preached at; and some welcomed us into their campsite and talked for a bit. We asked questions and listened to stories. One guy hates his kids and wants nothing to do with them, another wants to get a job and a house so that he can reunite with his kids and be a good dad. One guy just got a job and was looking forward to starting in a few days; one lady is just waiting for her social security to kick in. Some people were content to camp by the river for half the year; others were there because they had no other place to go.
I asked questions and got answers. I want to help, but before I help, I want to know someone’s name. I want to know their story. I want to know their joys and sorrows. Only then will I know how to properly help them, instead of hurt them.
ps Watch this video, because it sends a pretty clear message as to how we see panhandlers, and how God sees them as His children:
*Michelle is Mel Trotter's Career and Education Superisor, and has a huge heart for the poor, turtles and mostly just for the Lord!*