“You got any spare change?” the man asks. He’s grubby, carrying a small backpack holding all of his belongings and a cardboard sign that says “Lost job. Anything helps.” I shake my head and hurry past, staring at the ground, not even looking him in the eye. I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t in good conscience give him money that he would just use to buy more drugs.
Five years ago, this was my normal reaction to people I saw begging on the street, but not anymore. I’m done with ignoring the homeless.
I didn’t encounter people living on the streets until I was in college. At least, not that I remember. I’m sure I must have seen them, but since I mainly lived in small towns, they just weren’t obvious. In college that changed when I got involved with a ministry that worked primarily with the homeless, both on the streets and in shelters.
I had (mostly indirectly) been taught to see the homeless as bums, gaming the system and manipulating good-hearted and hard-working people for a few bucks. I knew you weren’t supposed to give money to homeless people because odds were they would probably use it to buy alcohol. Buy them food or direct them to a homeless shelter if you want to help them, but never, ever give them money. Right? Or was that right?
As I started to spend time with the homeless, I started to hear their stories of how and why they reached that point. I heard stories of grief: loss of family members, loss of jobs, loss of homes. Did some of them drink their way into homelessness? Maybe. But for most of them, it was a series of unfortunate events completely out of their control. I started to see them as people, just like me. Instead of judging them for being bums, I began to see myself as only a few chance failings away from begging alongside them.
When I moved to a city following graduation I started to see homeless beggars on a regular basis, almost daily in fact. I found that I could no longer ignore the homeless like they were just bits of human trash holding a cardboard sign. Instead I saw them. I really saw them as people, and my heart hurt for them.
I wanted to help them, so I started to give them money when I could. A dollar here, three dollars there, a five dollar bill because I didn’t have any change. But I felt so incredibly guilty, still feeling like I might be enabling them and hearing the voices of people saying I shouldn’t do it. I would come home every time and sarcastically remark, “I probably just bought that guy more drugs”.
I continued in this catch-22 of wanting to give but feeling guilty about it until one day it hit me – I’m not responsible for them.
I’m not responsible for how other people spend their money. I’m not going to stand before God answering for anyone’s financial decisions except my own. It’s not my job to judge others and try to guess which homeless people are in the most need or which are the most honest.
It’s my responsibility to give. Period. A gift comes with no strings attached. I wouldn’t give a friend money and then say, “But you’d better spend it on your rent!” No, a gift is a gift. Homeless or not, worrying how someone uses my gift isn’t respectful and doesn’t treat that person like a human being. Once that money has left my hands, it’s no longer my money. It’s their money, and they can use it as they wish.
Where in the Bible does it say, “Give to the poor, but then make sure they are using your money responsibly”? Which verse says, “Stop giving to the homeless person when he’s asked you more than twice”? I’ve read the entire Bible, but I’ve never seen those verses.
In fact, the Bible is very clear on the issue of the poor. Over and over again it reiterates that we are to give our clothes, food, and money to the needy. Luke 3:10-11 states, “The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” In Matthew 25, Jesus continues to give a longer statement that helping the naked, poor, and hungry is like helping Himself. He ends it with, “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
And lest we think that this giving attitude only applies to physical possessions (which would remove the issue of using the money for drugs or alcohol), the Bible goes on to talk about selling our own belongings and giving the money itself to the poor. In Matthew 19:21, Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Acts 2:44-45 makes it clear that the Christians actually followed this method of helping the poor. It says, “And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” Christians shared not only tangible things such as clothing and food, they also sold their belongings and gave the money itself away, leaving it up to the poor to determine how to spend it.
I don’t believe Jesus meant to give us an out. He was pretty clear about our responsibility to the poor. I can barely open the Bible without seeing a reference to helping the needy. It’s really quite simple. We are called to give freely, unconditionally, and with no strings attached. I suspect the question on God’s mind these days is not, “Don’t you know how the homeless spent your money?” but rather, “Don’t you see my children in need? I put them right in front of you.”
It took me a few years, but these days when someone asks me for money for the bus or I walk past a homeless person with a cardboard sign, I at least make eye contact, say hello, and give them what I can. More importantly, I try my best to make time to stop and talk to them. I want to treat them like a real human being, find out their names, shake their hand, and hear their story. I try to make sure they know about the better help they can receive at homeless shelters and free health clinics. It takes courage to step out of my hectic day to really see them, but I know that’s the everyday, boots-on-the-ground kind of love I want to give people.
So I give the homeless small amounts of cash with no strings attached, and I don’t feel guilty because I leave the rest of the responsibility with them and God. Truthfully, I never even miss the cash I give to homeless people. Yet for them, that little bit of money and moment of being treated like a real person means the entire world.