In my city, they frequent intersections, although you may find them different places in your home town: those neighbors we know collectively as hobos, bums, and bag ladies, many of them carrying hand scrawled signs announcing their hunger. We all have our own reasons; our personal set of rationalizations, justifications, and moralizations that we subconsciously activate as we avoid eye contact.
Many of our thoughts are rational, logical, and not far off the mark. My own involve rumors from unidentified eyewitnesses of limo-driving accomplices relieving unspecified local beggars from wads of collected cash. Other thoughts concern a confirmed experiment an acquaintance conducted when he spent a Saturday offering employ to the entire cast of local characters whose signs claimed they’d work for food. He had no takers.
Further consideration revolves around a San Diego waterfront walk when I, along with some church friends, happened past no fewer than a half dozen idle beggars of indeterminate physical or mental ability and didn’t stop until we saw an amputee selling water from an ice-filled cooler and, respecting his approach, enthusiastically patronized his enterprise.
For years, now, these anecdotes have served as a framework to justify a straightforward drive-by. They were enough to alleviate the little tug of empathy and accompanying twinge of guilt I’d feel as I ignored any evidence on my periphery that all may not be well.
The problem with these well considered thoughts? They’re based on rusty rumors, and a second hand report from a single Saturday fifteen years ago. They’re based on judgment calls about what makes sense to me, an educated woman with a relatively privileged background. And worst of all? They don’t mesh well with my beliefs. I call myself a Christian, but I turn my gaze away from those Jesus called the “least of these”—those folks on the margins of life, the ones he told us to treat as though their flesh was his.
I never knew quite how to reconcile the discrepancy. I don’t feel good just handing over cash. I know I can’t assume honesty, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for automatic cynicism, either. What I really want these people to know is that, thanks to a great local organization, there is no need for anyone to be hungry or without shelter in our city. Our local HELP organization is an ecumenical effort to provide meals and lodging in host churches during the winter months, as well as year round bag lunches, housing assistance, and medical and dental care.
So I’ve decided to tell anyone who asks, by way of a hand held sign, about the options available to them. From now on, my response will be a brown bag. I went to the organization’s web page and printed off copies of the page listing their services and tucked the print outs in lunch bags filled with inexpensive pick-me-ups: granola bars, mini Spaghetti-os, applesauce, and a plastic spoon—simple resources that could sustain someone long enough to make it to the HELP office or the bus stop where staff provides nightly transport to host congregations during the cold weather months.
I have also decided to support the shelter, knowing that is the single best response to folks with legitimate needs. No, I can’t tell if someone is truly needy just by looking at them. But I’m willing to gamble a few snacks, some plastic spoons and a few paper print outs for the chance to give someone some hope.
These bags will be in a handy location in my car, at the ready whenever I encounter sign-wielding folks at city intersections. I haven’t handed one out yet—today marks the official launch of this operation—but I haven’t identified a downside yet. I’m not parting with any cash that might be misused. I’m not putting myself in danger --I am, after all, in a two and a half ton mini van and equipped with various cellular devices—or at risk for continued awkward interactions with potentially unstable people. I see it as funneling them into the proper channels, with a brown bag snack for the journey. This image works for me. I know it won’t meet everyone’s need, but no one can do that. It’s a tiny piece—my piece—in an enormous puzzle everyone would like to solve.
What does your puzzle piece look like? What thoughts are difficult for you to overcome in responding to folks on the periphery? Would the snack pack and literature distribution work for you? Is there something I’m missing? Why don’t we take the opportunity to do something that’s usually not nice --let’s talk about our neighbors.
*Editor's Note: The young man fishing through the goods is NOT a neighbor receiving assistance. He is the author's son.