The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.
Having ministered in the inner-city for many years, both in Washington, D.C. and around the world, it’s not been uncommon for people to seek my thoughts on a question all of us have asked: “What should I do when a homeless guy asks me for money?” It’s a great question, especially for those living in Washington, as we perennially have some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, and the number of homeless men and women in our city has steadily increased during the economic downturn. The vast majority of the time, the question of whether or not we should give something when asked by a person on the street comes from one who genuinely wants to do the right and best thing.
Fortunately, there’s a rather simple answer, and that is: “It depends.”
There’s a danger to adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach when we’re asked for money. A stock answer or unbending principle flirts with treating the man or woman in front of us as a problem to be solved or awkward situation from which to quickly move on, as opposed to a person to be encountered and somehow to bless. A good answer to the question depends entirely on a specific situation as it presents itself and the unique individual asking for money. If there are unbending principles to apply, they are love and dignity.
The vast majority of people living on the street are mentally ill , or enslaved to addiction, or both. Neither changes the fact that the person standing at the stop light or sitting on the corner with a cup out is a human being, beautiful for simply having been made in the image of God. To be asked for money is to be asked another question, “What would love do?” And love takes a variety of forms.
Sometimes, and many people do this, the request for money is met with an offer to buy some food, even a meal. If the need is actually food, then to provide food is better than giving cash. And it gives the opportunity to hear each other’s story.
Sometimes, just to pause and have a brief conversation with the person can be more meaningful than any money, to offer a gracious human encounter that says, “You matter, you are someone, you’re not ‘just a homeless guy.’”
Sometimes we can’t give. In those times I will always reply with eye contact and an “I’m sorry brother” or “I’m sorry, ma’am” and explain I don’t have anything to offer right then. Most of the time the reply is gracious right back. The point is to say, “I’ve seen you and you are worth more than being ignored.”
On a couple of occasions I’ve taken the time to challenge the person asking for money to take stock of their situation and take responsibility to get out of it. Something in the interchange called for it. The most loving thing to do was to say, “You deserve better than the life you’re settling for.” It’s good to know of organizations that exist to help folks in this situation, like Central Union Mission, whose doors are always open to anyone who wants to get of the street.
And sometimes a good thing to do is simply to give. C.S. Lewis’s stepson tells the story of a time when Lewis was walking with a friend and a person on the street came up and asked him for spare change. Lewis emptied his pockets and gave it all to the man, and once he had left, the friend challenged him, “You shouldn’t have given that man all that money, he’ll only spend it on drink.” To which Lewis replied, “Well, if I’d kept it, I would have only spent it on drink.” Our responsibility is not what a person will do with the money we freely give, but rather to take the opportunity to be wise and compassionate to a fellow-human being, the most dignified creature in the world.
The principle to abide by when asked for money is to exercise thoughtful discernment. The action called for is as different as the unique situation. It depends.
Sometimes, even more deeply, being confronted with a request for money often is actually about us more than the person asking. Will I take this chance to be a person who is generous, gracious, and loving? Will I not fall victim to any of my own greed, or prejudices, or revulsion? Will I take this moment to remember that every man, any man, is my fellow-man? Can I discipline myself to love, whatever the situation, whoever the person?
The folks who stand at stop lights with a cardboard sign are my regular opportunity to train myself to be loving and stay loving. It’s not about them, it’s about me. More often than not I’ll grab as much change my fingers can hold that I keep in my car to pay parking meters, and pass it on with eye-contact and a “God bless you.” It matters for my own character, and I hope the change helps a little bit too.
One thing is for sure, when we’re asked for money on street, it’s not about the money. It’s about encounter, and dignity, being human, the other, ourselves, even God. In this way, being asked for money can actually be a gift, and the person getting the question is actually the one who stands to gain so much, and a whole lot more than pocket change.