Why I Won’t Ignore People On The Street

My new workplace has a parking lot for staff behind the building.

The front of our office faces a bustling, busy street filled with professional types in suits and blazers; the back, where the parking lot is, faces a dark, narrow little alley that snakes between a hospital and another set of businesses.

On my first-day orientation, the kind HR woman escorting me around the building patted my hand.  “So here is the security number,” she said, “and be sure to put it in your phone.  There are sometimes…people…outside lingering around the lot, and security can escort you in if you feel unsafe or if you’re bothered by anyone.  Do not hesitate to call.”

Later that day, I attended a small presentation by the security staff, where I learned that the “people” she was referring to were primarily panhandlers and the homeless.  We were instructed strictly not to give money or food if asked, to avoid conversation, and to enter the building swiftly.  If we were disturbed, we were told to contact security or the police immediately.

Over a month in, I have only seen two homeless men, neither of whom I was required to ignore since they passed by me wordlessly as I gathered together my things in the car: they were both pushing luggage carts filled with what appeared to be cans and dirty blankets, and they never looked up or even seemed to register their surroundings.

But the way my workplace handles the situation with these “…people” has made me sit and consider the homeless, and panhandlers, in a way that I never have before.

How are believers to respond?  How should believers respond?

I will be the first one to admit that my workplace security would, if they saw me on a street in any major metropolitan city, peg me as a danger to myself and to others.  I will buy newspapers and flowers from the panhandlers and homeless who sell them; I have given food before; I have offered up spare change for buses and for gas even when I knew very well there wasn’t a gas station for twenty miles.  I offer up phone numbers for local churches and the Salvation Army.  I provide directions to soup kitchens.

I’m sure this reads as naiveté.  (I’m equally sure this is horrifying my father).  People will say, shaking their heads, “Doesn’t she know that some of those ‘panhandlers’ make good money?  That it’s a scam?  And doesn’t she care that half of those people use that money for drugs or liquor?  They’re just lazy, or addicts, or both—and you’re enabling them.”

To which I say: that is absolutely possible!  I have no way of knowing what panhandlers genuinely need my change and which don’t. I have no idea of knowing which people are “legitimately” homeless, and which are addicts, and which are mentally ill, and which are all of the above.

But as far as I am concerned, Jesus said give.  To the needy, yes, definitely, and to the oppressed, to children and to widows.  But he also told us to turn the other cheek to someone who had slapped us, and to give up not just our tunics to those who demanded it, but our coats, too.  In other words: give!  Give more than you’re asked!  Give to people who deserve it and who don’t!  Freely you have received: freely give!

When we start to determine our giving by who we feel deserves it or has legitimately earned our pity, we’re headed to a dangerous place.   Do you think you legitimately earn anything God gives you?  Do you think you deserve grace?

“Give, and it will be given to you,” Luke 6:38 tells me.  So here’s the truth: I want God to give me an egregious amount even knowing me fully, in all of my sin and stupidity.  So do you think I’m going to hold back on other people?  No way.

Look, I do my best not to be stupid.  I carry mace on my keychain.  I try to give items or food or actionable assistance before I give money.  When a very aggressive homeless man once followed me down a street in Montreal, yelling unintelligible things and lunging forward, I went inside a large and well-lit bank and stayed there until I felt less threatened.  I have security’s phone number on my cell, and if I ever felt there was a problem, I would call.

But I don’t like the idea of just…not giving.  It scares me to think of becoming someone who grows accustomed to not seeing other people.

Because that’s what happens.  You walk by, you keep your eyes straight ahead, you carry on your conversation, and you step over other actual human beings.  They become part of the scenery.  They become things, not people.  Inconveniences.  Something to be gotten rid of.  Something to be judged and dismissed.

Or, alternatively, we grow scornful.  “Scam artists,” we say, shaking our heads as we cross the street to avoid them.  “Better off working.  Such a drain on the public.  Don’t give them anything—they can get a job, or they could if they weren’t drinking.”   We start to view them as sinful and damaged in a way that we aren’t.  We feel superior.  We grow comfortable in our judgments.

I don’t want to be comfortable.  I don’t want to feel superior, because I’m not.  I don’t want to be blind.  I want to give merrily, and to see people, and to acknowledge them—even when they’re not always doing the right thing, even when their circumstances are their own fault, even when I don’t know why they need what they need.

Jesus came to the downtrodden, for sure.  He came to the needy, the depressed, the orphaned, the widowed, to those without: to victims of circumstance and hurt and sorrow.  He also came, bless Him, to the grifters, the scammers, the shifty, the arrogant, the helpless, the hopeless, and those victimized primarily by their own stupidity.

He came to all of us.

And I am glad of it.

 

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