Updated: Feb 27
Welcome to Lent! Traditionally, this is a time of alms giving. The same question comes up every year, what is the proper way to deal with homeless people?
There he is again, long dirty gray hair and a cardboard sign. Why did I have to be the first one stopped at the light? Do I look at him or pretend not to see him? Do I give him money or will it just go to drugs? Why doesn’t he just get a job? These are some of the questions that many of us ponder as we squirm in our seat at the stoplight when a homeless person meets our gaze. Let’s get practical and figure out what to do in this situation once and for all; but first, some theory, some stories and a framework in which to place these practical actions.
With time to kill in the city of Charlottesville Virginia, I was walking around the Barracks road shopping center when I felt like God told me there was someone I needed to meet in the Barnes & Noble. It is a very rare thing that I get an impression like this and even rarer that I follow through. This day I did.
Wandering around in the exceedingly small economics section, a tall, well-dressed man strikes up a conversation with me. This might be the person I am to meet, I thought. After a long conversation that seemed to lead nowhere fast, another person wanders over. A bit rude and obviously there to get out of the cold weather, he barges into the conversation. “Are you a Christian?” he asks the tall fellow I had met. He replies that he is. The homeless guy goes on to explain that he felt like God told him that there was someone here he needed to meet, and this person would answer his questions about God.
The tall man had to admit that he didn’t know his Christian faith well enough to answer questions or give any help. “Could you talk to him?” he asked me. Only at this moment did I finally make the connection that I had been talking to the wrong person. I spent the next couple hours sitting down and answering question after question. You may be thinking that this story ended well. It did not. Again and again between great and thoughtful questions he asked for money. He knew that God had someone for him to meet, but, in his mind, the only thing that would really help him was cash, not answers.
I may have given him something, I really don’t recall. But this was years ago, and, even if I had given him 10,000 dollars, what difference would that have made in his life? Money is not what held him back from being a thriving human being. Look at John the Baptist. He lived in the desert in abject poverty eating bugs and the wild fruit he could forage. How about St. Francis of Assisi, after giving away everything he had, even his clothes, he was naked, hungry, and homeless. Another thing about St Francis- he was happy, and infectiously so. Far from being forgotten or unimportant, he changed the world. The man I met in Barnes & Noble with the clothes on his back and the phone is his pocket was immeasurably richer than both of these examples. What set them apart was God’s Grace, not mankind's money.
A few years before, I was sitting outside at a Starbucks, contentedly working on my laptop, when, Boom!!! A Bible is spiked onto my table like a football. “I'm done with this thing. You can have it!” yelled a homeless guy who was now staring at me. As one can imagine, this sparked a conversation between the two of us. This conversation probably looked more like an exorcism than a nice chat. He threw over the remaining tables and chairs on the patio, screamed obscenities, the works. After a long talk that culminated in getting him to reset the furniture and having only small bursts of rational dialogue, I had built up quite the appetite.
In a moment of optimism I concluded that, yes, I could take this guy through a burrito line. I wasn’t wrong per se... We almost got kicked out a few times due to "someone’s" violent outbursts, and, yet, we emerged victorious, burritos in hand. Finally, he agreed to tell me his name, Willy. I kept his Bible for the next few years and continued to pray for him.
Years latter, I was walking down the street and a familiar face looked over and called out from a bench, “Beautiful day isn’t it”. We ending up having a long talk where he explained that God had given him a great gift. Without a job or a home he could wander around wherever he wanted and give praise to God. Happy, peaceful, and fully in his right mind, I asked him his name. “Willy” he answered without hesitation. Whereas before we almost got kicked out of two establishments, today we sat and talked like two old friends.
Willy didn’t ask for money- he didn’t care about it. He joined the ranks of all Christians, as beggars in the kingdom of heaven desperately in need of God's grace. Before leaving, he asked what he could pray for in my life because, after all, he had all the time in the world.
It is God’s Grace, not man’s money that changes people. That said, God gave us a real flesh and blood Jesus to show us his love. He gives us the sacraments as physical things to give us grace. We can’t afford to be more spiritual to our neighbor than God was to us. When we love our neighbor, it is with material things, as a material manifestation of God's immaterial grace.
What then do we do at the stoplight? I would suggest that you make a gift that can be the means of grace entering their life. I fed Willy a sacramental burrito that day. When he held that food in his hand, he knew that I was not ashamed of being associated with his violence, his stench, or his poverty. He watched me stand between him and the angry management to make sure he would be fed.
How about this- hand the person at the stoplight a folded up $10 dollar bill and tell them that you will spend 10 minutes in prayer for whatever they ask. Now, that gift is more than just cash. It is a promise that someone has blocked off their time to pray for them. Maybe the gift is you spending time with them. It could be a blanket or a new coat. Whatever you choose to give, make it sacramental by infusing God’s Grace and love with our comparatively pathetic material offerings.
But what if our material gift would instead harm them? What if the money we give goes to drugs, or fuels alcoholism? Sure, we could give food or a gift card, but that just means we freed up their other resources for drug money. After all, money is fungible
If these weren't enough worries, might we be keeping them from getting real jobs where they could turn their time and talents over to the common good through work? Wouldn’t paying them on a street corner keep them from being in a paying job?
Finally, this is America not Calcutta. There are so many programs targeting the poor, it's ridiculous. In fact, government spending on the bottom 20% of earners is more than the middle 20% of households earn in income! How are they even still poor! They have smartphones, and they are getting food somehow. This food is not only better than what billions of people worldwide get today, but is far superior to the norms of human history, and the same could be said about their shelter.
Trust me I get it. When I see people at street corners, the first emotion I have towards them is anger, not pity. I am fond of saying that no one is poor in America, not by global standards, and certainly not by the standard of history. As you can see from the other topics on this site, economics is an interest of mine. I am keenly aware of the messed up incentive structure that is created by street corner charity. I won’t contest a single objection from above.
My favorite story to tell about homeless people happened in Lynchburg Virginia at a gas station. This town is the home of the Bible thumping Liberty University. A guy walks up to me at the pump and asks for some money, saying, “I’m not going to lie to you man. It's a hot day and I’m just going to buy beer with it”.
I replied, “Well, you know what the Bible says...” Clearly he had heard this type of response before in this heavily Christian laden city. “Oh maaaaaaan,” he said as he started to walk away. “Hang on! I think you are going to like this part,” I responded. He stops.
“Proverbs 31 says, “Let them drink and remember their poverty no more. In fact, it clearly says to give alcohol to those in misery. Tell me, are you in poverty? Are you miserable?” Nodding his suddenly gleeful head, “Yeah!” he shouts. “Well I guess as a Christian I must give you money for beer. It is a hot day after all,” I said while handing him some cash.
Maybe he was an alcoholic, and I halted his sobriety by a day. That said, his perception of Christianity being in opposition to joy may have been halted too. It is a funny story, and he likely told his friends how the Bible tells Christians to give drink to those in poverty. For the price of a six pack, he became a bit of an Evangelist, spreading the news in a rigid fundamentalist city that God was a God of joy, even for the least of these.
I don’t know for sure if this was the right approach, but I tend to believe that the constructive power of God’s Love is more powerful than the destructive influence of the vices we fear to fund.
Back to the practical. If you don’t have the time or ability to figure a way to make your gift sacramental, then the balance probably tips towards not giving anything, and that's fine. No really, its fine! The principle of subsidiarity tells us that those closest to a problem ought to solve it before it is solved by those more distant. For someone to be on the street corner, there must be ring after ring of failed levels of subsidiarity before you are on the hook for giving them care.
Where are their brothers, sisters, parents, kids, friends, neighbors, and church community? Maybe they are refusing all of their help and would rather beg from strangers. Not giving them anything could drive them back to people who have real responsibilities to care for them. This is why the choice is to give sacramentally or not at all.
One more story about the homeless. Again set in Charlottesville, I was responsible for hiring about 50 people for entry level part or full time work, no experience required, pick your own hours. At the time, the unemployment rate was only a bit over 1% in the city, meaning no one was applying. I left the office and found every homeless person I could and handed them a pen and an application. “I am offering you a job, whatever hours you want.” Their responses were always pathetic excuses. I would push them harder, “What's that? You don’t know how? I’ll train you” “Oh, you don’t have transportation? There is a bus route nearby”, “What's this, you don’t have work clothes? I will give you a work uniform.”
I left them with no excuse and not one person took me up on my offer. After the talk, I would be honest with them and tell they that they were being lazy and pathetic, and that their life didn’t have to be that way. For months afterwards, when homeless people would see me around town, they would run away.
Maybe I was a bit mean? Could be, but I hope, at least, that I was doing the same thing as before, giving God’s Grace. I showed them who they were, lazy and ungrateful. Grace often hurts, and seeing one's own sin called out and having to confront it is not fun. However, recognizing our sin is the bitter medicine that can save our souls.
So what are we left with this Lenten season? Here the your options; give sacramentally, don’t give at all and ignore them, or finally offer them a means by which they can leave their present state and force them to confront their own sin if they don’t. (If you are a mental health professional and have the capability to connect those who have mental illness with care, you are in a different category from the common passerby. Keep up the amazing work!)
All three are perfectly acceptable, and it is up to you, in prayer and prudence, to determine the best option. If you choose number three, it is imperative that we are pulling them towards repentance and not trying to shame or punish. If you think you are going to be angry and condescending like I am sometimes, this strategy probably isn’t for you. We ought to approach all of God's children with the same care and tenderness with which God approaches us, remembering that we are called to give of ourselves to the ungrateful masses just like Jesus did.
Some Christians will think that I ought not include option 2. Instead, they might say if we are not going to give money we can at least tell them we are praying for them. Please, don’t do that. They will get the impression that Christians are too cheap to give, and only pass out weak well wishes instead. After all, prayer without sacrifice isn’t nearly as effective anyhow. Scripture is with be on this one:
If one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? James 2:16
I have also heard that we are always to give and to give generously. It is our Christian duty to give and theirs to spend it wisely. Them using it on illicit things is not our responsibility. After all, doesn’t God give us things and allow us to use them poorly too?
This is making the mistake I have been reiterating. Money and Grace are not the same thing. Just because you gave money doesn’t mean you were a channel of God's grace. Just because you gave money at a stop light doesn't mean you are any holier that those who didn't. Depending on the situation, maybe you are less holy, virtue signalling, chasing the warm glow of altruism, or too weak in will to avoid being an enabler of a malicious vice. Money can be used as a fuel of self destruction. As Christians, we are our brother's keeper and as such we are responsible to starve the fire of the living hell that these people are creating for themselves here on earth. Yes, give generously, but only when your gift is sacramental. This type of gift is what can expiate their sins and yours and smother that fire with God's love.
Finally, if you are not going to give them anything, yes, ignoring them is fine. Imagine if you were them and noted that a person saw you, read your sign, even smiled at you, but did nothing to help. For me, that would hurt a lot more than someone who is simply watching for the light to turn green. Maybe on foot, a nod, wave or smile could make sense, but don’t send the message that you see their suffering and you don’t care.
There is no perfect formula or exhaustive flow chart for how to solve this problem, but this Lent I encourage you to experiment. Push outside of your comfort zone and, for goodness sake, banish any worries about being taken advantage of from your consideration. If you are sinned against in this way, forgive them and know that, in the measure that you forgive others, your heavenly Father will forgive you. Remember, it is only by God's Grace that we aren't in their shoes.