Okay, I confess: I give money to panhandlers.
The reason is simple: I don’t like how it feels to avoid eye contact when I pass someone asking for help. I decided if I can hand over a buck without fumbling through my purse, if I feel safe, and am not enticing anyone to cross traffic, I’m going to give away money when asked.
I’m totally nearsighted, so clever signs don’t sway me. If the person isn’t too scary – not brandishing a machete, in other words – his appearance doesn’t matter, whether he’s sitting in a wheelchair, or dressed in a suit with a Maserati parked around the corner.
I’ve heard all the urban legends; the bag lady who spends all day downtown asking for handouts, then retires to a swanky hotel where she can enjoy a highball and a filet-o-fish while counting her loot. I rather doubt my dollar is going to help offset many of her expenses, about as much as I doubt it’s going to pay for some junkie’s next fix.
I don’t know what a “fix” costs necessarily, but I do know the price of a drumstick at the Albertson’s deli counter. I wonder if maybe the shaky-looking guy on the corner is in a place right now where a tiny kindness and a little sustenance might be enough to push him to the next level, to where he resolves to find a safer place to sleep, to clean up, look for a job, get back on his feet.
It could happen. We live in a country where any poor schmo could supposedly pull himself up by his bootstraps and become a zillionaire. Why is that more plausible than the guy dragging himself out of the gutter?
I know what it takes to ask for money. I happen to do it for a living. Asking for support of any cause, no matter how noble, puts one in a place of vulnerability. We’re taught to be skeptical of anyone asking for help, and so it makes us reluctant to ask it for ourselves or on behalf of anyone else. We fear judgement. I can’t believe for a second that standing on the street corner with one’s hand outstretched is taking the “easy way out.”
I also appreciate that handing someone a buck once in a while frees me from wondering about the motive of the guy with the outstretched hand. I don’t have to feel bad turning him down, telling myself I wouldn’t be helping anyway, that maybe he somehow deserves this lot in life, or wondering if he’s a veteran or someone with a mental illness or all of the above. I don’t have to wonder if the children he mentions on the sign even exist. I don’t have to judge. I can just take his “bless you” or his polite nod, or his blank stare as he accepts my meager generosity.
Here’s the other thing though: the guy might be Jesus.
I’m not super religious, but that passage gets to me: that which you do to the least of these, you do to me... There are stories in the Bible about the son of God checking up on folks by walking around in disguise and then popping out unexpectedly. It either happened just like it’s written, or else I’m not the first person to imagine it happening.
So I drive by someone asking for help. There’re a couple dollars in the cupholder, and giving one away is no more difficult than politely turning my head to sneeze into the crook of my elbow. But I don’t. I don’t turn my head. I sneeze right in Jesus’ face. You tell me I’m not going to Hell for that. Sorry. I’m giving a handout instead.
The kids are used to the fact that the cash in the cupholder is Jesus money. We talk about not judging people, about giving what we can when we can.
Of course, we also talk about caution. People are out there looking for ways to take advantage. Grandma lived with us for five years and probably changed her long distance carrier eleven times a month and gave away money to every “Friends of Firemen with Cancer” organization that sent her a letter. I know there are lowlifes out there who will take advantage of a grandma. I know the guy on the corner could be ready to snatch my cheap handbag from the front passenger seat for the paltry collection of coins, photos, half a lipstick and crumpled up receipts he’s going to find inside. I talk to the kids about scoping out well-lit, public places to give away money… and now I also talk about staying in the car.
Once we pulled up to a corner where there was a young guy playing a guitar. He had bright eyes and a dirty hat pushed back on his head. He didn’t look scroungy. He looked kind of blissed out. I gave Colin a buck.
“Here, you do it,” I said.
To my alarm, Colin unbuckled and opened the door, swinging his legs out just as the blissed out guy noticed and came over to get the dollar.
“Jesus Christ, Colin, get back in the car!”
He pulled his leg back in and closed the door, looking at me with wide eyes.
“Do you think that was really him, mom?”