Since the COVID shutdown in March, the homeless population in our small city has been difficult to ignore. Suddenly, many daytime locations where they accessed food, heat, and toilets disappeared, leaving them in the streets for large portions of the day. Our city, to their credit, placed porta-johns throughout town, that six months later, are still needed and still remain.
Whatever could have been said about our city making headway in issues relating to homelessness, it certainly feels like we are starting from scratch again. According to a recent discussion by a local university, approximately 40-60 people have been experiencing homelessness regularly right in the small square by our government center. Whether there are actually more people experiencing homelessness, or those that are simply are more obvious at this time (I suspect the latter), there has recently been ample need for food and services for people in this situation.
Since March, nearly every time I drive through town, I expect at minimum one or two opportunities to give something to someone standing at an intersection, holding a sign. Our kids know the drill. Someone grabs a new water bottle from our pack in the van, while I dig around for any granola bars or fruit I might have in my backpack. If we hit the light red, I hand out the food. If green, we wait for the next opportunity – which will always come – usually sooner rather than later.
When I was young, I was taught it is never wise to hand out money to someone on the street. Chances were, that individual was going to turn around and spend it on a bad habit or addiction, not nutrition and hygiene. I would therefore be enabling that person to continue his or her cycle of poverty. I should, perhaps, feel some sort of guilt for doing so.
While the possibility of cash being used for supporting an addiction is certainly within reason, I’ve changed my view a bit. I do not believe in enabling bad habits, but I also recognize that someone else’s addiction is not necessarily for me to solve. There are ways society can help, but everyone has their own mental health and spiritual circumstances to manage. In summary, I often refrain from casting judgement, either on the individual or on myself. How that person ended up where they ended up, I don’t know. If there’s something I can do to help, I will. If I can give water or food, I generally opt to do so. But if circumstances just don’t allow for that in the moment, I am not opposed to handing out a small sum of cash and praying it gets used wisely.
“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Matthew 26:11 (New International Version)
Even Jesus himself informed us that we will not solve the poverty problem in its entirety here on earth. If we could invent the perfect social safety net, it still wouldn’t catch everyone. Why? I’m not sure, but probably for the same reasons that so many other things here on earth are imperfect: sin, broken humanity, imperfect human insight, uncontrollable circumstances. If we aren’t going to solve the poverty problem, then we have to find ways to make the best of it, and alleviate it where we can.
I recollect once, several years ago, while leaving market with several small children in tow, I saw a man standing with a sign. He appeared fairly well dressed and clean; a bit of an oddity for someone out asking for money. Is he telling the truth? I asked myself. I don’t recall exactly what his sign read, but I think it was something down the lines of being a disabled veteran. I looked in my wallet. I had a $10 bill, which was more than I usually gave out. I decided, whether he was telling the truth or not, I would give it to him. I smiled and handed him the cash. He took in the view; a mother of many littles, and then the bill I had handed him. “Oh no, I can’t take this,” he said. I reassured him we were well-off. He thanked me. Before I left, I looked him directly in the eyes. That bill could be used for many things. It could be used for food for my children. It could be used for formula for my youngest. It could be used for a meal for him. It could be used for an alcoholic beverage. It could be used for a hit of heroin. Now it was his decision to make. Be blessed and choose well sir, I thought.
I don’t want more homelessness. I don’t like enabling any kind of bad habit. I want to point out though, whatever our life circumstances, even if we are the ones continually creating the mess we are in – and all of us have made our own messes at some point – each one of us is loved by God and should be viewed with dignity, despite our failings. All of us have sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23), but for some of us, our falling is more publicly obvious than others. Whether public or private, our failings don’t mean we are less valuable to God.