Almost every day on my way home from work, I see a homeless guy at the busy intersection down the road. Not the same guy, though; I’ve seen dozens of them. And occasionally a woman.
They usually hold some kind of cardboard sign saying they’re hungry and God bless you. They stand in the hot sun and the cold rain on a slender median with traffic on either side, frequently venturing out to walk between the cars stopped at a red light. Their eyes meet mine when I dare to look over from my comfy driver’s seat, but most of the time, I avoid eye contact. Sometimes they look ragged. They always look pitiful.
And I can’t help but wonder if they’re really homeless.
Maybe they’re parking a Mercedes somewhere and spending a few hours at the corner for easy money. Or using the hard-earned cash of merciful passersby to fund their drug habit. Or delaying the responsibilities of adulthood by relying on handouts.
Am I getting more cynical these days?
Back in high school, I did a project on homelessness. I went to a homeless shelter and talked to people there about life, family and art. I talked to staffers about the situations that left them with nowhere else to go.
I’ve since met other homeless people—some while writing articles, some while volunteering, others at a church dinner.
One man had a great job as a security officer until his wife divorced him, leaving him penniless and forced to move. He was looking for a job and hopeful for a new start.
Another woman had fled an abusive relationship, leaving everything behind. She eventually ran out of money and turned to the local shelter until she could get back on her feet.
And yet …
I can’t forget the time a friend and I were approached by a friendly, older man who asked for money to buy food, giving us a story about his medical bills. I offered to buy him lunch instead and listed all the different places within sight. He politely declined, saying he couldn’t have any of it; he was on a strict diet. I eventually caved, gave him $5 and immediately regretted it, feeling like I’d been played. If he was really that desperate for food, I’m sure he would’ve accepted one of the many options I offered. I don’t know what he did with my 5 bucks, but I have no doubt he took full advantage of my goodwill.
I get the same feeling when I see people begging at the same place at the same time every day. I envision one going back to his buddies and saying. “Hey, stand here for an hour and you’ll make bank.” …
But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to extend generosity and not worry what comes of it.
There are lots of Bible verses about helping the needy, but two stick out to me:
“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.”
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
Whether the guy on the sidewalk is actually homeless or not isn’t my concern. We’ll both answer to God one day and I’m responsible for me.
But here’s where it gets sticky. What if I’m contributing to bad habits? Or paying for someone to get drunk when it could be going to something important? Is it really better to throw away my money than hold out?
I much prefer offering people food or water—I rarely have cash anyway—plus it gives me an opportunity to hand them a Gospel tract with it. Other times, I lift up a heartfelt prayer for them. … Although then I imagine them thinking, “That’s nice, but why don’t you do something?”
Our responsibility to the needy isn’t just handing over money or crackers every time you see a homeless person, but serving them in all kinds of ways. I’m inclined to think they could get the essentials at a shelter, a church or some other nonprofit, but maybe not. How am I, as a Bible believer, doing what it says and caring for those in need?
A couple of years ago, I saw this social experiment where people walked down the street, unknowingly passing certain family members who were disguised as homeless. It was a reminder that the homeless folks you pass on the street aren’t just bums but someone’s brother or wife or friend.
And I think that’s the crux of the issue.
Whether we get uncomfortable or feel tempted to overlook them, the people on the side of the street are still made of the same flesh and blood we are. From there, maybe we just use our best judgment to respond.