“Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference.” (Kevin Heath)
Over these last couple of years of writing and talking about kindness, a consistently controversial topic of conversation has been whether or not to give money to panhandlers and homeless people. I know people who always try to carry a stash of dollar bills to hand out when they can. An acquaintance keeps socks and hygiene products in her car and offers them to people who appear to be in need.
I also know people—good people—who are vehement that such handouts are wrong-headed and counter-productive. They say the people seeking our dollars are just lazy; if given money, they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. We’re just enabling them, they tell me.
While attending a conference in Washington, D.C., several years back, I was walking to dinner with a colleague after a long day of meetings. We were stopped on the sidewalk by a young man who asked if we could help him out with any spare change. I reached into my wallet and handed him a dollar. He walked on and so did we. However, for the remainder of our walk and well into our dinner, my friend scolded me for giving the man money. She said he was probably a freeloader who didn’t want to work and made his living conning and begging tourists and bleeding-hearts like me. How did I know that he was really in need, or that he wouldn’t spend the money on drugs or alcohol? She said I was just making the problem worse by handing him money on the street. If he was really in need, there were social service agencies that could help.
I was surprised by her vehemence—I knew her to be a very kind person. She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake! I may have tried to defend my action, but mostly I was just embarrassed. Not embarrassed to have given money, but embarrassed to be scolded like a school-girl. I think I would be more assertive and confident in my reply today.
Nonetheless, I am somewhat chagrined to admit that since that evening I rarely give anyone money when I am in the company of a friend, a business colleague, or even my husband. I’m not proud that I have allowed my fear of embarrassment to inhibit my kindness. I’ve even rationalized it to some degree: this way, when I give someone money, I am freer to stop and exchange a few words with that individual and I don’t have to feel rushed or worry that I’m delaying my companion, or making them uncomfortable. It is a rationalization, though. I fear judgment.
My friend Nancy recently sent me an editorial from the New York Times Opinion Page, entitled, “The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry.” It quotes Pope Francis as saying that it’s “always right” to give to those in need.
When questioned about people who may use the money for drink, Pope Francis said, “[If] a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” (I confess, Your Holiness, it’s chocolate.) He also explains that those of us who are “luckier”—who have homes, and families, and jobs—have a responsibility to those less fortunate. Clearly, this is a view not held by all, but it’s one that fills me with hope.
Further, the Pope explains, what counts as much as giving is how we give. It’s not a matter of dropping money into a cup or quickly handing over a dollar and rushing on, but “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”
It’s also exchanging a few words. Even if our own pockets happen to be empty, we can always give the gift of seeing someone, respecting them, and acknowledging our shared humanity.
A couple of years ago, I attended a weekend conference in Pittsburgh. It was late May and the weather was glorious. I had a free afternoon, so I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a book. I divided my time between reading and appreciating the sights around me—children playing on the lawn, couples strolling hand-in-hand, squirrels, dogs, flowers, and endless varieties of trees and birds. I remember feeling the overwhelming sense of how fortunate I was to be able to experience it all. For a time, gratitude filled every pore.
After a while, I walked to a local restaurant and ordered lunch, still able to watch the activity of the park and the busy street outside. I asked the waitress to box up my fruit salad and the remaining, untouched half of my sandwich, thinking they would make a fine dinner. Walking back toward my hotel, I felt the fullness of my life and the amazing privilege of when, where, and how I am living. A block or so from my hotel, I noticed an elderly man slumped in a wheelchair. At his side was a can with a few coins in it and a small cardboard sign with lettering that said, “Please Help.”
I stopped and greeted him. Then I said, “I have a half a turkey sandwich here and some fruit salad. Would you like them?”
His eyes widened and he said, “I surely would.” I handed the restaurant bag to him and also reached into my purse for a couple of dollars, which I also handed him. We talked for a minute or two and I noticed how his eyes held a lively twinkle. When I resumed my walk toward my hotel, I felt even lighter and happier than I had before. My brief interaction with the man had felt good. While I’m sure he appreciated the sandwich and the few dollars I handed him, I sensed that even more, he appreciated being seen. He was used to people averting their eyes, ignoring him as they quickly walked by, even occasionally dropping some change or a couple of dollars into his can, but then rushing off without a word.
I think my own gratitude that day opened me to extending a kindness and offering not just the gift of food or money, but the gift of my genuine attention. I received a cherished gift that afternoon.
And maybe that’s a way of thinking about the question of whether or not to give to panhandlers and homeless people. Does your small gift of money, kind words, or attention offer you a gift, as well? Does it make your heart just a little bit bigger…and do you hear it sing just a bit sweeter?
What are your thoughts on giving to street people and the homeless?
“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose.” (Chinese Proverb)