June 12, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
If you’re a living, breathing human being dwelling in a decent-sized city, you’ve probably encountered a number of people on street corners holding signs asking for money or food or with signs that simply say “anything helps.” So it’s not surprising that one of the most common questions that I’ve gotten from people after they hear that I’m a missionary who serves a population of people living in poverty is whether they should give money to those people or not.
The dominant argument against giving cash to a person holding a cardboard sign asking for money is that they may use it on drugs or alcohol, so you are only helping to feed their addiction, not helping them get out of poverty. Therefore, it is good to give them food or a gift card to a fast food restaurant, but giving them cash is a bad idea. And to be honest, this is a valid concern. I’ve made a lot of friends on the street who have serious drug and alcohol addictions. Many of them have talked about “flying a sign” so that they can get money to buy a few beers that afternoon or evening. If I knew for certain that someone would use my $5 bill to go buy a few beers at the liquor store when they are already alcoholic, I wouldn’t give them my $5, because I would know for certain that I’d be encouraging a vice that they are already severely struggling with.
On the other hand, cash can also be exactly what many people without homes need. Many are trying to save up for a deposit for an apartment. Many need to buy new shoes, or a sleeping bag so they won’t freeze to death when the next snowstorm hits. These are things that no number of donated sandwiches and bottles of water will help them buy.
Msgr. Charles Woodrich, also known as “Father Woody,” was a legendary priest who is often referred to as “Denver’s Patron Saint of the Poor.” He was known for his love for the homeless, and was instrumental in starting one of the biggest homeless shelters in the Denver area, The Samaritan House, and for starting an annual Christmas party for the homeless which now serves about 4000 men, women, and children each year. One of the things he was known for and often criticized for was giving out $10 or $20 bills to people who were in need, no questions asked, a tradition which still lives on in the archdiocese. When asked about why he did it, even when many people may use the money for drugs or alcohol, he would usually reply by saying that he is there to help, not to judge, and that God calls us to be charitable and love our neighbor, and then calls the recipients of our gifts to be good stewards of what has been given to them.
There have been a number of times when I felt called to give cash to someone living on the streets, but there have also been a number of times where I felt like that would be imprudent and it would not be the best use of my limited resources to give money to someone who looked like they would not use that money wisely. I don’t think it would be wise to give money to every single person you meet who is asking for it (you’d probably go broke if you live in Denver), but I also think you are missing out on an opportunity to love and encounter Christ in the homeless if you say no to every person who asks for help. I can’t say that I truly loved the “least of these” if I refused to help every single person I ever met who asked for some support.
At this point you may be thinking “Alex, you’re totally wasting my time. Is your answer to the title of this blog post really just “sometimes?” Well, yes it is. And I guess it’s time to admit that the real way I’d like to challenge you has nothing to do with giving money at all.
The next time you encounter someone who is holding a brown cardboard sign that says “anything helps,” I challenge you to do something that is usually even harder, but more necessary, than handing them $10.
Treat them like you would want to be treated.
Imagine that you were in their shoes, and that they were in yours. Think about how you would want to be approached. Would you like some money? Probably. But there is something that you’ve probably been thirsting for even more.
And that is love.
That is human contact.
That is for someone to walk or drive past you without trying to avoid eye contact so that they can pretend like they didn’t see you.
Whether you have money to give or not, you always have your time and your love to give. If you don’t have a lot of time, simply say hello and ask for their name. Maybe introduce yourself and say that you’ll be praying for them. If you’ve got more time, ask them about their family or their dreams. Ask about where they grew up, what they liked to do as a kid, what their favorite food is or if they have a sport they they enjoy watching and what their favorite team is.
The true poverty that the poor among us face isn’t a material poverty, but a poverty of exclusion and isolation. A majority of us treat them as something “other.” This is why Pope Francis focuses so much on fighting the “culture of exclusion” and teaching us that we need to create a “culture of encounter.”
“Yet becoming a people demands something more. It is an ongoing process in which every new generation must take part: a slow and arduous effort calling for a desire for integration and a willingness to achieve this through the growth of a peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter.” (Evangelii Gaudium 220)
A quick Ctrl-F of the Pope’s latest apostolic exhortation reveals that he uses the word “encounter” 34 times in the document. So the next time you see someone living on the streets, ask yourself if you are excluding them from your life, or if your interaction with them is truly an “encounter.”
If you’d like to encourage more people to live a life of encounter with the poor, please share this with your friends via social media and email.
EDIT: I was asked a very good question via Facebook about if there is any basis to when we ought to give and if “the decision (to give is) based on a gut instinct or on some set of rational criteria—or both?”
My reply: A bit of both. I think rational criteria has to do with it more for me, but there’s also an aspect of if I’m moved emotionally to give to someone after talking with them or if I believe God has been calling me to be more generous, even if rationally he or she may appear to not “deserve” it. If someone has a sign that says they need money for beer or weed (the later is particularly common here in Denver) I don’t give them money because if they are that direct about it, I get the impression that they are probably fighting an addiction. I also avoid giving money to someone who is high/ intoxicated or shows clear signs of being an addict of a hard drug (meth is pretty obvious, some others aren’t as much). I gave more during the cold months because I believed that it was more likely that people would be using money on getting a motel room or a sleeping bag to stay warm if they lacked one of those.
The reason I avoided creating a clear line about when to give or not give is because I didn’t want to state that certain people are always unworthy of our charity, because that is not true. Sure, the man or woman who is clearly addicted to meth may not be the best person to entrust my money to, but it doesn’t make it wrong to give them something. They need money too, and while it’s likely that the cash may go to drugs, there’s always a chance that they may use that on food or housing, or even better, that your interaction with them may move them to conversion or plant the right seeds which may be watered and harvested by other people that they interact with later in their lives who will compel them to pursue a better life.