He stood at the stoplight at the bottom of the freeway exit ramp. Dirty, disheveled, most if not all of his worldly possessions in a few bags at his feet. He held a scrawled cardboard sign: “Homeless: Just tryin’ to survive.”
I watched him from about four cars back. Interesting touch, I thought, making note of the dropped “g.” With an apostrophe, no less! That’s when my son spoke up: “Why isn’t anyone giving him money?”
Why, indeed? Had I become so jaded that I took it for granted that no one gives money to beggars on street corners?
It’s a common dilemma. I lived and worked in Manhattan in the mid-’80s, during the height of the crack epidemic. One encountered three or more dirty, disheveled beggars on every block, each holding the ubiquitous blue-and-white Greek coffee shop paper cup. When I first moved to the city, I was genuinely torn as I walked down the street; even if I was so inclined, I did not have enough money to give to everyone who asked. In those first days, I put a few quarters in a few cups. But a few days later I saw one of my beneficiaries staggering down the street, drunk out of his mind. I had no doubt where my quarter had gone.
That’s when I stopped giving money. A few offers to buy a meal were turned down. That solidified my resolve. And when a woman in a full-length fur coat gave me a sob story about how she’d just inherited the coat and wouldn’t part with it because it was her aunt’s favorite coat … blah blah blah, so could you please give me some money, I just walked by, giving her barely a glance. Living in the city had hardened me.
Twenty-plus years later, I had taken a purely clinical approach to the man at the bottom of the freeway ramp. My son, alas, had not yet been hardened.
I’m still not sure how to think about this. There are Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:45: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Those words are a dagger to the heart every time I think of how callous I’d become in New York — and on the freeway ramp.
But then I read the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” The homeless man was young and able-bodied, and surely he could find work somewhere. Giving money to beggars merely encourages irresponsible behavior.
But then …
I can go back and forth on this forever. One thing I can do is to give generously to organizations such as the Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse or Compassion International that are able to pool resources and do genuine good for the least of these — no equivocating or questions asked.