Thursday, March 31, 2005

Homeless Smomeless: Show Me Some Real Suffering

Every day on my walk to the subway through my Brooklyn neighborhood I pass no less than three homeless people asking for money. On my way home I pass at least three as well (usually a different three). This doesn't count the ones I run into when I'm in Manhattan.

This bothers me.

A true disciple of Christ might be bothered by this situation because there is a child of God who is suffering. A true believer in the teachings of Jesus might abhor the situation because of the dramatic imbalance of opportunity and means in our society. A true Christian might not be bothered at all, she'd just love these people.

Not me.

I'm bothered because they make me feel bad six times a day, NO MATTER WHAT I DO, whether I give or withhold. Why do they make me feel bad? Because I struggle with those teachings of Jesus we all know that are about giving to the poor. Because I once read Approaching Zion which suggested we need to give without judgment of those asking. Because I would never want to be in that situation and if I were I'd only hope someone would treat me with kindness.

But here's the problem: it's a career for some of these guys, it's their full-time job. These are the same guys that have been asking me for money since I moved into the neighborhood two years ago. I know a few of their names. Everyone in the neighborhood knows their names. They are a Park Slope institution. In fact, a local magazine did an editorial on one of them where we learn all about him and how he gets along (answer: fine).

While I appreciate the fact that they aren't sitting around a welfare-funded apartment living off my taxes, I have a hard time getting past the fact that the service they offer to society is a weight on our conscience. Payment? Our spare change. There are high school teachers in my hometown that make less than these guys, the only difference being the standard of living between New York and Spokane.

Don't get me wrong, I often give them my change (when I have some in my pocket) but most of the time I don't. And I hate walking past them acting as if I don't see them. But it's just as bad to look at them and give the shoulder-raise, squint my eyes and quietly say, "sorry, I don't have any." But I do have some. I could go to the bank and get money out. I could take them to the deli and buy them breakfast with my debit card. I could let them sleep on my couch for the night.

But is this fixing the problem? Isn't this just buying them fish (rather than teaching them how to fish)? Yet, who am I to teach them a lesson? Shouldn't I just have compassion and leave it at that? I know Christ (and King Benjamin and Paul and...) said we should give to the poor. Are these guys poor? They have no home, no job, no resources, no loved ones to count on. Are their new sneakers a gnat I'm straining at to justify my selfishness? Or is it just a matter of common sense to not encourage a dependence on other people's charity?