Begging the Questions

What is the “correct” response to have when a homeless person comes begging?

We’ve all been there. Sitting at the red light that won’t change, watching the guy with the sign, trying to figure out what to do about the homeless man begging for a few coins. He’s a veteran, says the sign. He hasn’t eaten in days, says the sign. He’s out of work, out of luck, out of options.

If you’re like me, there’s a tug-of-war going on inside you, a debate about how to respond. You know that he’s in need, but you’re not sure just what his needs are, and you’re pretty sure that hand-lettered cardboard sign is expressing, at best, a partial truth.

You feel bad for him shivering in the winter or broiling in the summer, but you harbor a reasonable doubt about whether rolling down the window to hand over your lunch money is really going to help. You know that there’s a good chance that you might even make things worse. I don’t like this little dance of deceit.

In this town, like most other communities, there are places for homeless men to get a meal. There are places for them to sleep. Charitable donations to those worthy organizations are a much better way to help the man standing on the median.

But there he is, just a window pane between your air-conditioned world and his disheveled hair, and you feel a need to do something, even if it is just to say a prayer. And honestly, most of us on most busy days pray only that the light will soon turn to green.

I know kind people who make an extra sandwich before they go to bed at night, and look for the chance to hand it to a needy person the next day. I have a friend who will buy a Subway gift card to pass on to a down-and-out fellow he regularly encounters. Another friend makes a point of keeping track of one man who refuses to live indoors, just to let him know that someone cares. Each plan has its own rationale, and each giver is motivated by a desire to do a little bit of good.

In my repertoire I have two practiced responses. I give my deposit bottles to the guys with the shopping carts, and I offer yard work to anyone willing to work for a few bucks.

Unless you have a better answer, it’s hard to criticize anyone for acting on their desire to give. Maybe by opening our wallets we at least keep our own hearts from hardening.

On the flip side, if you talk to the police or the neighbors or merchants who see these guys every day, certain truths emerge. While every story is unique, most homeless men share two things in common: addiction and mental illness. Most have suffered trauma, often in wartime. They are not seeking money for food; they are seeking cash for heroin, spike or beer.

Since the agencies can meet their basic needs, what can I accomplish by handing over a donation? There is this circle of deception. You tell me you need food, I give you money, and then you go buy beer.

The one exception to this is an elderly man named Mike, a poet and an alcoholic with deep blue eyes and a magnificent beard, who will ask me straight up for money for beer. Mike’s honesty and his age can sometimes inspire me to reach into my pocket. I know I’m not doing Mike any good, but at least I feel like we’re keeping it real. There’s something genuine about the transaction.

Then I got a text from a friend with a problem. She had a party and there were seven six-packs of beer left over. She preferred to have them out of the house before the kids came home from college. I obligingly collected them, and the Honest-to-Goodness project was launched. Now I drive around with my friend’s beer bounty in the car. When I see one of the guys I know, I hand him a couple of bottles.

I have no illusions that this is doing anyone any good, but it brightens his day and seems to me to add a bit more honesty to the equation. Previously the guys would lie to me about needing money for food. I would lie to myself and give them the money. Then they would take my money to Rite Aid and get a couple of Natty Lights.

This way we just cut out the middle man, and the deception. Honest to goodness.

Ed Griffin-Nolan

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