Originally published on April 5, 2011 – Must be a common struggle if this post still resonates almost 18 months later.
He sits on the sidewalk outside Cala Foods. Sometimes he asks to help me carry my groceries. Sometimes he holds a cup. Most days, he looks so exhausted that I can’t imagine him lifting a green onion much less a gallon or two of milk. I smile at him each time I see him. I ask him how he is. He answers. Some days I give him a little change. Some days I just stop to talk. Some days I walk by, thinking I’m too tired for this today. My fatigue is nothing in comparison.
She is behind the Harrisburg Public Library. Her shopping cart is full. It’s raining and cold. I drive over, hand her my raincoat, and drive away.
The sign says, “My house burned down. I lost my job. My family lives here.” I roll down my window, “Hi.” I hand him the change I have. “What’s your name?” “Frank,” he says. “Nice to meet you, Frank.” A tear slides down his cheek to mirror the ones on mine.
She stands by the off-ramp north of Baltimore, a cup in hand. I avert my eyes. I hope the light turns green.
I don’t know what to do in the face of such pain, such poverty, such undefinable need. Give money? Definitely don’t give money? Offer food? Look away from their (my) shame? Support a local shelter?
My friend Jansen tries to offer food, but “95% of the time I’m turned down.” He doesn’t give money because he doesn’t want to enable addictions, so he does the more loving thing, the more sacrificial thing, the harder thing – and yet, he is refused.
I almost always give money. Is this about what I say it is – my inability to determine what they need? “It’s not my business what they do with the money.” Or is it about my desire to feel better, seem like I “helped?”
Ultimately, this is a question of dignity and compassion – how does one help someone maintain or restore her dignity in the most humiliating of circumstances? What is the truly compassionate thing to do when giving money might encourage an addiction and when refusing it might mean children go without food?
This question of compassionate responsibility – this is a tough one. It affects what I write, what I say, what I do.
Today is Golden Rule Day. We are taught to “do to others as we would have them do to us,” and as a child, this seems simple – don’t hit. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. But as an adult, I’m not always sure what I would have others do for me, and I’m even less sure of what I should do for others.
But I try. . . and pray that all will be made right in the end.
*Angela Brooks’ post on this topic (from which I took this picture) is a thoughtful look at homelessness that is well worth your time.