Friday, February 26, 2010

Close to Home, Part 2: Talking About the Neighbors

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.


Pines Lake Redhead said...

I love this idea and just shared it with my co-workers. I plan to make up some brown bag care packages too. Thanks!

Gropius said...

Thank you for this post...really makes you think. I work for a community foundation, and knowing the agency point of view--there are so many nonprofits offering services, yet many of them are overwhelmed. Contributing directly through them is an excellent way to help. Most people who are on the streets do know the resources are there for them. I'm not saying it's easy, but the agencies are there. I often think the same thoughts, however, when walking past a homeless man or woman. Is it worth risking my dollar to know that it could be spent on beer...what if it isn't? What if I could make the difference between a hungry night and one in which this person-- who has been someone's son or daughter--can be somewhat comfortable? It's a tough call, but I do believe in the power of our social service nonprofits. They do a good job with what they have, but could always have more. They understand the problems on a larger scale and have more power to help.

Willoughby said...

I've wondered some of these same things. I read an article, once, by a man who had spent a short amount of time homeless. He went to a shelter that provided employment opportunity, which he took advantage of and changed his situation. He said that other shelter residents called him a sucker. They had no interest in employment.

So here's my take on it. I will not give anyone money, but I will give them food. I remember one time, in particular, my husband and I were driving and saw a man with a "will work for food" sign. We debated whether we should stop. We decided to go to a nearby store and get him some food. We bought orange juice, milk, and some assorted food items. We gave them to the man, who thanked us profusely. As soon as we pulled away he dove into the food like he hadn't eaten in a week. Whether or not he had other means, he was certainly hungry. We pulled away feeling we had done something important to help another human being. It felt good. Since that day, I think of it like that. The person may or may not be honest, but, for a few dollars, I can make me feel good about me. If he/she is scamming for free money and food, that's on their Karma. I just like knowing that I didn't turn a blind eye to someone (potentially) in need.

I think your brown bag approach is a good one. You may be doing someone an incredible service, not only by giving them some food, but giving them information about your local shelter.

I have an award for you on my blog!

Kathleen said...

What a wonderful, wonderful idea!! You rock!! And what a great lesson for your kids to learn as they work beside you!

Julia, the Thanksgiving Girl said...

Yay for supporting a shelter! What a good idea.

Gracey said...

I loved your idea, and I think it works much better than giving money, or avoiding the problem altogether. Thanks for the inspiration.

Life Laugh Latte said...

I think that is a terrific idea. Like our pastor says...we just need to make a ripple. I think each kindness is giving them a measure of hope. Reminding them that love exists in the world. Like you...I'm not willing to stand before Jesus and say...I just didn't take a moment to figure out what to do...but I hit all the sales at Target! So proud of you for taking action. Moves my heart. Holly

Together We Save said...

This is a great idea!!

Holly said...

Why are you making me think and question my own actions so much! Just kidding. I think you resolution/idea is ideal. I would do this. I have had too many instances (now, I know all are not like this) where food has been rejected and the person asked for money instead...or on the few very instance when I have offered money, they have actually asked for more. I really like this approach.

Catherine Wannabe said...

I am so blessed to be your sister. I love you and I think you are an amazing woman.


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