"Just ignore them. You don't know what they'll use the money for."
I heard some form of this directive whenever my suburban school would head to Chicago for a field trip or on the rare family and friend outing downtown. I learned that homelessness was a consequence of addiction. If we gave them money, they would spend it on alcohol or drugs. Therefore, don't give them any money at all. Even worse, don't make eye contact and don't acknowledge their humanity.
As I got older, I began to wonder if this was the best way to deal with the homeless. Could the entire homeless population in Chicago- and the suburbs for that matter- be victims of substance abuse? Was it possible that some of them had rotten luck and honestly needed a helping hand to turn things around? If that were true, how did you distinguish between who would take the money to get a hit and who would use it to buy a meal? These people are someone's sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, maybe even someone's parents. Their life was not always like this.
I remember in high school noticing people selling Streetwise, a weekly publication sold by those who are or are at risk of becoming homeless. The vendors buy into the paper and then sell as many as they can, hopefully earning enough to afford rent, food, clothes, the basics. I thought it was a brilliant idea. A way that most people could give to a homeless person and have faith that the money would be used wisely. A way for the homeless individual to feel a sense of purpose, respect, and dignity. Although different, I wonder if this is how the street performers feel. No, they're not all homeless, but they are in search of recognition of and respect for their talent. I suppose that's why I don't mind tossing some change their way. Regardless of why they're performing on the street instead of a club, their heart and soul is on display with their music.
To this day, I don't feel right walking past someone panhandling and not giving them anything. But it's ingrained in me. "You don't know what they'll use the money for." I have some friends that will buy the panhandler a meal instead of giving them money. However, I typically find myself alone in those situations and don't feel comfortable going off somewhere with a stranger whose past and habits I don't know. Something else I learned throughout my childhood: "be careful, people like to take advantage of girls." I find myself over-aware of my vulnerability, ever vigilant of my safety. This is a good thing given this day and age. However, I find myself wondering if I've passed up opportunities to be God's hand and feet to an often ignored group of people.
Case in point. About a year or so ago I was driving to visit a friend in rural Illinois. As I drove on to an exit ramp from the highway, I saw a man hitchhiking with his dog, a backpack with his belongings in tow. I wanted to pull over and give him a ride to at least the town I was going to. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit prompting me, maybe it was the dog. In my head, all I could hear were whispers that it wouldn't be safe. All the warnings to never pick up a hitchhiker. That this man with the adorable dog might be mentally unstable or a serial killer. So I kept driving, unsure if it was the right choice, even after I could no longer see them in my rearview mirror. I was so unsure that I mentioned it to my friends, wondering what they thought of car safety, hitchhikers, and random acts of kindness. Their immediate reaction was that I did the right thing by not pulling over. "The dog is probably a ploy to lure innocent young women!" one friend exclaimed. I wasn't convinced.
The homeless population has been on my heart for several years now but I've never been sure what to do about it. I attended a church for a year during grad school that had a soup kitchen and held a free Thanksgiving dinner every year. I volunteered at the dinner, talking to the people who came. Some were homeless, some simply had no family to speak of, some were lonely, some had never been in a church before. My impression was how much we all need to be noticed and acknowledged by others, no matter what our situation might be. I always enjoy hearing a person's life story, learning the ups and downs and how they got to where they are now. I suppose that's part of why I'm drawn to the homeless. I want to know where they've been and see if I can help them go where they want to go.
When I was working for hospice, there were limited opportunities to minister to the homeless in the suburbs. My availability and resources never seemed to match up with the possibilities. When I decided to move to Nashville, I was praying about what God would have me do here. Where could I volunteer? How should I spend my free time? I'm still keeping an eye out for what I should do next. I've found a small way that I can help for now.
Like Chicago's StreetWise, Nashville has a monthly paper, The Contributor. Their vendors start out with 15 free papers. If they like selling, they can buy copies for 25 cents and sell them for a dollar. They keep the profit from what they sell. They do not solicit tips, although they often are tipped. Rain or shine, the vendors are out in their territories. They wait, watching cars drive by. I noticed vendors within my first few days of living here and decided that I would be intentional about buying the paper.
Whenever I'm in my car, I try to be conscientious of the cars behind me. Whether buying a flower from a street vendor or The Contributor from a vendor, I never want to hold up traffic. I've solved this dilemma by keeping a dollar in my car, usually next to my extra set of sunglasses or with change for the tollways. (Not that Tennessee has tolls but old habits die hard.) This way when I'm driving by a vendor, my money is ready to go. If the light doesn't turn I'm free to chat for a little bit. If it hits green, it can be a quick exchange.
The Contributor started with a print run of 1,500 in January 2009. The print run for this month is 60,000. Even more impressive than those numbers is this. Of vendors that had been selling The Contributor for more than a month, 29% had found housing since they started selling. Vendors who had sold for at least 3 months had a 35% rate of finding housing. Talk about a little bit of money going a long way in making a difference!
Of course, there are still questions. Should I buy more than one copy of the paper each month? Should I give a tip? Should I try to buy from the same vendors? Should I hand out bottled water and snacks when I see someone or would that be presumptuous? What more can I do? It's a learning process. I've decided that I have to start somewhere. One dollar for a paper with interesting, informative stories about homelessness is a good place to start. The rest is up to God's leading.
This post was written for Walk with Him Wednesday at Ann Voskamp's Holy Experience. The community is answering this question: How Do You Care for the Least of These? Join us in prayerfully consider what it means to be Jesus' hands and heart to a hurting world ...