Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Brother, can you spare a dime?

"If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one." --Mother Teresa

For most of us, it is uncomfortable to be confronted with homelessness. Or maybe I should just own this. It is uncomfortable for ME to be confronted with homelessness. Sometimes I avert my eyes, move over on the sidewalk, walk a little faster, say a hasty "not today."

Oftentimes, though, I give something--usually a little money, but sometimes food or just a smile. I'm not looking for praise for treating a fellow human being like, well, a human. Half of my motivation is selfish. I feel bad when I pass by a homeless person--guilty, like a bad citizen, like I'm racking up bad karma. What are a couple of dollars to me? Not even a tall latte or a couple downloads at iTunes. A couple dollars for a homeless person can mean the world. So, you see, I give as much for my own soul as for my fellow (wo)man's.

I've written about this before, but...When I lived in Chicago, I sometimes volunteered dishing out free Sunday lunches at a Salvation Army on the Northside. I would pour coffee or water as ragged men and women shuffled through the cafeteria line. Some of the patrons were gregarious, some combative and seemingly ungrateful, some had minds that had failed them. They all looked tired and worn down by life. One afternoon it struck me that each of these world-weary adults had once been a baby wriggling in someone's arms--a baby whose mother wished for him the world, even if she was incapable of providing it. An uncle may have said, "This one is going to be the president one day." A grandmother may have remarked how he would grow up big and strong, like his daddy. I'll bet no one thought about Vietnam, substance abuse, mental illness, or bad decisions that would lead that promising bundle of joy to a faded Salvation Army near the el tracks. But maybe I'm being Pollyanna. It is possible that no one ever had dreams for these men and women, and that feels even worse.

I think about that when I pass by a homeless person. And so I try to give. It was harder in the big city, where I passed about 10 homeless people between my apartment in Hyde Park and my office on the Magnificent Mile. It is easier here, where homelessness is tucked away.

A lot of people don't share my point of view. In fact, my husband rarely gives money to the homeless. His military service and years on a public housing police force have made him a little cynical about people and their motives. I call him "my little curmudgeon." He's convinced that if you hand someone a dollar, they are bound to spend it on a fifth of Wild Turkey or crack. That may be, but once the money leaves my hands, I've done my duty. The recipient must wrestle with his conscience or his god or his addictions to decide how to spend it. My father sometimes says that giving a little money may keep a desperate person from knocking the next person over the head to take what he needs. But some people argue that that attitude makes the problem worse.

What do you think? Do you give to the homeless? Why or why not?
UPDATE: Check out Los Angelista's wonderful post Even the Homeless Love Benny Goodman.
Image courtesy of bobandeuni at Flickr.


Mes Deux Cents said...


I once bought a meal for a homeless guy. It was a good experience for me.

Other than that I don't give to people on the street, mainly because there are literally dozens maybe hundreds of organizations that help the homeless here.

We have a huge homeless population; I'm talking as many as 20 thousand. So I volunteer a few times a year at a homeless shelter and I give money.

I think in the long run it's more effective to give that way rather than to give to individuals.

Also I should mention that I was darn near homeless once. It was a harrowing experience.

baby221 said...

When I was visiting Portland I once had a homeless couple (with a dog!) stop me and ask if they could have my leftovers. I felt a little awkward about being asked, but I handed over the bag anyway, with a suggestion to not feed the pasta to the dog because it contained onions and onions (to my knowledge) can be deadly to dogs.

Other than that, though, I've never given money or anything else directly to a homeless person. (Usually I don't have cash on me.) I do give to charity collectors, like the guys with the bells who appear around the holidays, and I leave change in the little cash-register collections (which sometimes help the homeless, but also go to things like prostate cancer research, so it's kind of hit-or-miss).

I dunno. I admit that I'm suspicious of people asking for money on the streets, mostly because I know too many students who've done it as some kind of performance art piece or as something for some project or another. And I carry with me the notion (thank my dad) that most of them pandhandle as a side job, and that I shouldn't encourage them. But for the most part -- yeah, it's a karma thing. Homelessness makes me completely uncomfortable and as much as I wish there were more I could do ... I'm conflicted.

SheCodes said...

When I lived in Manhattan I made a practice of buying an extra sandwich at lunch and giving it to the first homeless person I saw.

I rarely gave money to flat out beggars, because quite a few of them are alcoholics or on drugs, and I won't assist them with killing themselves just to ease my conscience.

I almost always give money to 'street artists'... those are people who sing, play their violin etc. Even if they suck, I gave a 'lol something. That's because they are trying to earn it as opposed to begging for it -- that shows an amazing level of dignity that I want to preserve.

There was a blind man who begged on the E train that I regularly gave a dollar to. I gave 'real' money twice, once to a mother with a baby and once to a man in a wheelchair. My heart told me to do it, and did.

But for the most part, it was just a sandwich or a piece of fruit.

Liz said...

I am very similar to Mes Deux Cents. We have so many homeless people here in LA that it is overwhelming at times. I regularly give to charities and volunteered twice last year.

I always thought stuff like Streetwise was so great because it actually trained people and helped them develop new skills. I used to buy like 5 or 6 papers a week back in the day.

lisa said...

I agree with MDC - I will by a homeless person food 9and I have) but I will not give them money.

Tami said...

Yeah, Liz, Streetwise is great. Do they still do that? It was still around in Chicago when I left. If any of you haven't read Liz's great post, Even the Homeless Love Benny Goodman, read it here:

I should say that I don't give money to people who show obvious signs of drug dependency.

My husband agrees with many of you. He recommends giving to a church or charity and letting them disperse the money. But how do you turn away the person in need standing right in front of you?

KimcheeBrown said...


Too older homeless man walked past me in Times Square last night with a cardboard sign that said "HELP ME GET A BEER MAN" I gave him $5. Count that as a vote for honesty.

Hilary said...

If there were adequate resources for the poor in our community then I would agree that it is somehow up to the homeless person to pull themselves out of their situation. But, since that is far from the case, I have no problem throwing a little money or food their way.


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