They have been with us always and they’re known by many names—vagrant, vagabond, panhandler, hobo, beggar, tramp, street person, drifter—but the reality, for most of them, is the same: they are homeless and they are grindingly poor. They ask us for money.
In many of our cities we encounter them frequently, and each time the silent question forms: what is my responsibility toward these people? Am I, as a fellow child of God, obligated to give them money when they ask for it? What if they use it to buy drugs or alcohol? What if they’re not poor at all and I’m being scammed? What if they’re just lazy? Why do they think they’re entitled to my money?
It is one of the more wrenching and complex issues of our times and it calls for a rare and thoughtful response: compassion tempered with wisdom and real-world common sense. It’s also vital to remember that when it comes to homelessness, one size does not fit all.
“I don’t think we should assume about people because there are different situations that people are in when they’re homeless,” says Greg Walgenbach, the director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange. “And the folks who are panhandling, who are out there all the time, those are the people we think about all the time when we think about people who are homeless. It’s always the panhandler who comes to mind. But there are so many people who are working who are homeless, kids and teenagers who are homeless, people who are in a variety of situations.”
The imperative, says Walgenbach, is to remember our common humanity and to acknowledge the homeless rather than simply quickening our step and averting our eyes, even though we may feel tension or awkwardness.
“We’re right to be uncomfortable with that tension because I think to have a blanket policy—I will always do this or I will never do that—doesn’t really work because we’re talking about people here,” says Walgenbach. “We’re talking about human beings and I think we’re right to be bothered by their real situations and their real flesh-and-bone dilemmas and all that humanity that we encounter on the street. We’re right to let that affect us and touch us.”
Not that our encounters with the homeless don’t require some critical thought.
“There are always exceptions,” says Walgenbach, “but as Catholics, we’re led by the Holy Spirit as well and sometimes there’s a discernment call on the spot and you realize that maybe you will give this person some money, or there’s another need that comes up that you can address. I am very hesitant to give cash because I don’t think that usually is what’s most needed. I’m much more quick to buy somebody food or a cup of coffee or something like that than to give cash.”
Ultimately, says Walgenbach, the challenge in dealing with encounters with the homeless is treating them with “the same basic human dignity that you’d treat, say, the barista at Starbucks or the kid on the block that you see every day.
“In the context of walking to work, for instance, you may be going by the same people all the time. I think it’s a good thing to get to know them and treat them with that human dignity of other people that you’d run into all the time at the coffee shop. Get to know their names, get to know a little bit about them, exchange a good morning, a little back and forth.”
On the other hand, there are mistakes that can be made, even by well-meaning people. Walgenbach cited an instructive list of dos and don’ts published on the nationswell.com website.
What not to say?
“Why don’t you get help?” This assumes the person hasn’t tried. They have. No one wants to be homeless.
“Here’s a dollar. Please don’t use it to buy drugs/alcohol.” If you give, give without strings.
“Why don’t you go to a shelter?” Sometimes conditions in shelters are worse than those on the street, or there may not be enough beds.
“Get a job.” Many homeless people suffer from mental illness or other conditions that prevent them from getting a job. Or they may be on the streets because they suffered an injury that rendered them unemployable. And some homeless have jobs that don’t pay a living wage.
What to say?
“I don’t have any money, but is there another way I can help you?” One contributor suggested carrying granola bars, chewing gum or small plastic bags of raisins to hand out.
A simple “good morning” or a short conversation about sports, or even a “how are you doing?” often are enough to brighten a person’s day and make them feel less isolated and invisible. A wish of goodwill can be even more powerful: “I’ll keep you in my thoughts” or “I’ll pray for you” are genuine expressions of solidarity.