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.


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