Thursday, October 04, 2007

brother can you spare a dime

True compassion is more than throwing a coin to a beggar. It demands of our humanity that if we live in a society that produces beggars, we are morally commanded to restructure that society. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and forwarded to me by Urban Urchin).

Awhile back Ally asked me how I respond to panhandlers. It's something I've talked about before but wanted to answer again (how sick are you of hearing me carry on about this? Go on, be honest I can take it).

Let me be clear that I in no way believe that giving a few dollars to a guy on the street ends homelessness. It's not strategic or life changing. It's not the end of the story or the happy ending. But to the individual it matters a great deal. When someone asks for help and it is given we are saying with our gesture I see you. I care enough to stop. It matters to me that you are suffering. That person, however momentarily, can accept our compassion and incorporate into his/her life situation. If that means he buys a hot dog, pays off a debt, or buys a fifth, that's not for me to judge. I think it's far to easy to get caught up in the I don't want that person to buy drugs, sex, drink and while that can/should be a consideration, then we should apply that thinking to all expenses. Because when I buy certain clothes I am most certainly fueling child labor. Or when I buy that gallon of gas I am supporting the nation's worst addiction of all. When I pay my taxes I am contributing to war.

Obviously some of those things we have more control than others. I can select where I buy my coffee more easily than deciphering the % of my income going to bombs and guns. And I might never know how the guy on the street will use my money. But if I am asked and I have the money then I share it for little more reason than the asking.

I would say I give money to folks on the street 4 or 5 times a week on average. Because I have the great fortune of being able to offer more than that when possible I offer a bed or a referral or a phone number too. Some folks aren't interested in more but I'd say most are. And what I glean from that, what seems to matter most is that I've stopped and listened. I've looked them in the eye and I've acknowledged their despair.

Because, and I want to scream this from the rooftops so please forgive me if it sounds preachy and bullheaded and what-have-you but these are HUMAN BEINGS IN SUFFERING. THEY ARE SUFFERING. It's incredibly simple to me in that way. How this country continues to turn it's back on poverty will never cease to amaze me. It will never cease to sadden and torment and challenge me. Because if one of us is suffering then we are all suffering. Because I am you, and you are me. It doesn't matter to me if your horse fell in a well and you are acting like an asshole and you deserve what you get and you goddamn need to get a job. All of that only serves to distract me from their suffering, from being in this moment with this person who is asking for help.

So that is a very long winded way of saying that I simply respond. And I hope with all that hopes within me that if I ever needed a place to sleep or five bucks or a bowl of food that a stranger would hear my cry and answer it too. Because we are all in this crazy tragic magnificent confusing unfair beautiful world together. And until there is no suffering we need to work all the angles, from the dude on the street to the policy dudes on the Hill.

43 comments:

Blog Antagonist said...

What a fabulous post. I respond when I can, although I am terrible about never having cash on hand.

The problem of poverty in this country is shameful. I was talking to a friend today about the vetoed health care bill and it led to a discussion about people always wanting a hand out.

Sure, some people do. But most people just want a fair shot at being able to earn a decent living.

Ugh. I can see this turning into a huge ramble so I'll just stop and say...Amen. To everything.

Aliki2006 said...

Excellent post--well said.

I try and never think about what someone may do with the money I give them. If I have it I give some, and that's that--what they do with it is not as important to me as helping to relieve their suffering, just a little.

You said it so well.

alejna said...

Thanks for this. I like the way you remind us that helping individuals still makes a difference, even if it's primarily only to those individuals.

You've certainly made me think carefully about how I respond to strangers in need.

flutter said...

You know, as you have also said before if people don't want to give money, then buy food or buy a coat, it all helps to ease the suffering. Really that's what is important.

KC said...

My views on this has changed so much over the years. I'm so glad you're here, saying what needs to be said. xo

thailandchani said...

This is the writing I have come to value so much from you. It is probably about the closest example to bodhisattva writing I've seen anywhere on the Internet.

One of the things I appreciate more than anything is that you manage to get beyond noblesse oblige to real compassion.

I'm not feeling very well today.. and I thank you for the lift. Something like this reaffirms my hope...

You need a national forum.


~Chani

FENICLE said...

What a great post. I often wondered about pandhandlers too. Thanks for your insight.

kristen said...

amen sister. changing one person at a time...i know since i've met you, i feel differently about the homeless and i too, hope that if i need help, that someone will listen. xo

Pgoodness said...

A week or so ago, I was at a local shopping center where there always seems to be someone with a sign asking for food or work or both. I didn't have anything in the way of work, but that day, I had a pack of Timbits that the boys never ate sitting next to me. (They always stand near the exit by the traffic lights). Before I even thought about it, I threw the car in park and grabbed the donuts. I offered them meekly - donuts? Not the most quality food to give, but he smiled so sweet and was so thankful, that I felt fabulous.

So now, I try to keep something small with me - a cereal bar, some fruit snacks, whatever - so that I can at least give them something.
Seems to me that giving to people in need is a win-win. And maybe, if someone else in that line of traffic saw me do something nice, they felt like doing something nice, too.

You are an inspiration, friend.

Ally said...

Jen, thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment, and for writing this amazing answer that inspires us all to take action each day.

I will start carrying more cash with me, because usually my problem isn't that I don't want to give any money, it's that I have no cash to give. I carry bus tickets in my backpack and have given those away on occasion.

Thank you, thank you, for this post!

urban-urchin said...

Jen you know I love you, and I agree that we should do what we can to end human suffering. But here's my deal.

My brother was a drug addict. Was because thank God, he's clean now and has been for 15 years. At the height of his addiction he would panhandle for money for drugs. He looked like shit but came home every night to a well appointed home in a tony neighborhood in London where we lived. His rags were designer rags and his shitty dirty hair was cut in one of the finest salons. He and his girlfriend (who lived with her parents who were high ranking Canadian diplomats) begged in front of the train station telling people they needed money to get home, get some food whatever. At any rate it was total bullshit.

I only give goods. I bought a guy a grande mocha with whip cream at his request- funny how even the down and out can make a detailed coffee order-I will buy you a meal if you're hungry, I will buy you a train ticket or subway ticket, I will buy food in the convenience store for your kids but I will not feed your addiction. Sorry- I can not- I saw how it nearly destroyed my brother.

okay- i'm done.

meno said...

Because of you, you! i now regularily give money to panhandlers.

Because of you.

Kyla said...

You are beautiful. And your words make a difference. They have for me.

We were downtown last week for a baseball game, the stadium is near a shelter I think. There were people scattered about, homeless I assume...one woman sat on a bench with what looked to be like all her worldly goods stacked on her head. I had no money with me, but I had respect and eye contact and warm smiles, and I gave them freely. I think a year ago, I probably would have watched my feet shuffle along the ground instead. You, friend, have changed me. What I offered, it is nothing, NOTHING to fix the problem, I know that...but those people, they are PEOPLE and they deserve to be seen, at the very least. And no matter what I have or don't have, I can always give them that. I didn't know that before meeting you.

painted maypole said...

I do not get sick of you blogging about this.

I met a man about 8 years ago who was so firm about this same thing. He said that when someone in need asks him for something, if it is within his power to give it, he gives it. It is not up to him to judge how that money is used. And that is what we (I, I confess, sometimes) do when we don't give the money. We judge how it will be used, or why we think that person needs the money in the first place. But the truth is we have something that can help someone else who is suffering. Thank you for this reminder.

Marymurtz said...

Amen. We are all our responsibility. That anyone goes through suffering alone is appalling, and yet it happens all the time. You help remind me to always strive to be a better person that what is easy, and to do what is right.

And because of people like you, my brother has a better life today. Bless you, friend.

crazymumma said...

Its about acknowledgement I think. stopping. seeing. you are me I am you all I have is this right now. but you are you and therefore you are divine.

(by the you I do not mean you Jen, but of course you are you, and you are divine. What I really mean is those who are not percieved as divine as singular as important. I ramble.

oh man. must sleep.

Casdok said...

Well said!!
Much food for thought.

biodtl said...

I appreciate these posts. I have always taken shit from friends and coworkers for giving money to panhandlers, but like you - I feel that they are suffering, regardless of the reasons. I have given food, clothing, blankets, etc when I can, but day to day, it's money that is most often requested and given.

Her Grace said...

In my small city, I have honestly only once seen a person asking for money or food, but your words will ensure that if I do (or if I travel to a larger city), I will always help.

Gwen said...

This is good stuff, Jen. Good stuff.

Beck said...

Beautiful post. I know exactly one other person who has such tremendous generosity of spirit, and luckily for me, I married him.

Sober Briquette said...

It's not bull-headed. You are thinking very clearly, and sometimes when things are so simple, people can't accept that and they go ahead and complicate them for no reason.

Susanne said...

I've said it before, your writing about homelessness has changed the way I react to people. Go on posting about this. Every one of us has something she is passionate about and it's a good thing to come back to that.

Janet said...

Nobody should get tired of hearing about this problem. You distill it down to the simplest notion: suffering. It's an idea with which ll of humanity should be able to relate.

Keep on doing what you're doing.

Magpie said...

Good post.

Can I nominate you for a MacArthur? I wish I could.

ms chica said...

Thanks for picking this topic up again. I am always looking for insight. Homelessness is not very visible where I live, and I am often surprised by the abruptness of it all when I travel to larger cities. I'm often torn between compassion, safety concerns, and not wanting to fund drinking or drugs. I appreciate your view of the larger picture. I will be thinking about this more.

Mrs. Chicken said...

I do my best to respond. I am not always as kind as I hope I will be. Thank you, as always, for reminding me that these dirty apparitions are flesh-and-blood people, with hearts and minds and feelings.

Jen, if the whole world was populated with passionate advocates like you, it would be quite a place, indeed.

Now please, compile these essays into a book. If you ask me again how, email me and I will tell you.

nomotherearth said...

To me, one of the most important parts (because I can't always spare money, or whatever), is to look the person in the eye and say something. Acknowledge them at the very least. For some reason, that is what gets me - the people (and I have been one of those people at times, I will admit) who just walk on by like they're not even there. To me, it's important to say "I see you. I may not be able to help right now, but you are still important."

Thanks for inspiring me to be better.

slouching mom said...

Jen, you are passionate, and clear-sighted, and DA BOMB.

I'm sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, I know it does, but it's the truth.

And this is SPOT ON.

liv said...

You are all the wonderful things that everyone has said you are---and more. I admire that you have the passion and strength to write about this day after day. That is true passion. Your passion makes me feel passionless.

Christine said...

i try to think of like a gift. you give it to make them happy, more comfortable, and SAFE. once it is in their hands the gift (money) is theirs to do with as they choose. but you are right--what we need to to do is simply respond. that is what love sis about.

what makes me sad is when i see people who need or are asking for money and i literally have no cash. i hate that and feel useless.

Ruth Dynamite said...

Keep saying it, Jen. Shout it loud. We hear you.

radical mama said...

"It matters to me that you are suffering."

Thank you for that line. I give money when I have cash on hand, and no one in my life seems to understand why on Earth I would do such a thing. [The audacity?! I don't get it.] I wish I'd had your line in my head along, instead of my usual shrug and "Because I should."

Anjali said...

Great post, Jen. And I hope you republish this same post every once in a while to remind us all that people's basic human needs are not being met.

You have and continue to open my eyes so much. I thank you for that.

allrileyedup said...

I remember hearing once that a majority of homeless people are in the middle of a job transition, and I always give them money (although I haven't come across anyone lately). I reference this speech a lot, so sorry if I've mentioned it before on your blog, but Barack Obama gave a commencement address to Northwestern last year (that can be found on his senator website) and in it he said, "The world doesn't just revolve around you. There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room." It's a beautiful speech. As is this post.

Pinks & Blues said...

Excellent post. Excellent. I love it and I agree with you 100%!
Love your blog!!
- Audrey

Bon said...

Jen, this is a beautiful post. you're making a difference...you know that, right?

i always figured, if you've ever spent even an afternoon sitting around on a curb or a sidewalk, panhandling is hard work and deserves recompense. or at the very least, acknowledgement...credit for putting onself out there and asking. i make eye contact if allowed, and i give cash if i have it. my favourite panhandler back in my city days used to have the finest lines..."spare some change for a hot tub, ma'am?" loved him, laughed with him. but i haven't tended to think about it in terms of suffering, not so much. you are widening my perspective, teaching greater empathy.

i thank you. and i'm listening.

Seattle Mamacita said...

thoughtful post jen.

Amy York said...

Thank you so so much for sharing this, Jen. I rarely have cash on hand... I'm a debit card girl. But I so often find myself avoiding eye contact so I won't have to say "no" ~ thinking they'll think I'm lying when I say I have no cash because I don't want to help. But you have given me a new perspective on this... Thank you.

bgirl said...

you just quieted a debate i'd had for many years in my head. thank your for making it so clear.. so please do NOT stop writing posts like these.

i needed the reminder and the insight you provided, these are people who need a kind gesture.

here's to pockets full of change that are soon emptied out, then refilled, then emptied...(repeat repeat repeat)

so now my question is what do you say to the stranger next to you that says.."you really shouldn't be handing them money or they'll never make a change"

Lawyer Mama said...

Sing it, sister!

I give money to anyone who asks if I have any on me.

mamacita said...

This morning I gave $10 to a homeless person who asked. It kind of felt like a lot. Then I went into the fancy bakery and spent $14 on pastries for guests. That juxtaposition helped me.

Your post makes it all so much more clear. Really to the bone. Thank you.

QT said...

I always give something - I usually never have cash on hand, but I always have power bars, gum, etc. If someone is outside a place that sells food of any kind and I am going inside, I always ask if they want something - I used to feel like a jerk off asking, but so far no one has turned me down...