One place they gather is just outside the Maceys parking lot. Maceys is where I do most of our grocery shopping, and the entrance onto State Street is narrow enough that traffic backs up there. They give you time to see them, with their cardboard signs. ‘Homeless Please Help.’ Friday, it was a family, multi-generational, multi-racial. The youngest looked about twenty; he was tall, had something wrong with his left leg, gimped over. He was on my right, passenger side, had to lean into the car for the money. I gave him three dollars, all I had in small denominations. “Thanks, man,” he said.
Something about homelessness; language reverts to a sixties usage and idiom. Adding ‘man’ to every sentence. “Here you go, man.” “Wish it were more, man.” “Thanks, man.” And yesterday, outside Bed Bath and Beyond, from the short toothless elderly African American guy I gave a few quarters to, “God bless you, my brother.” It’s heavy, man, thinking about homelessness. Groovy to give. The sound track is Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” and Jimi with Highway Chile and Tull with “Aqualung.” It all feels very tie-dye and patchouli oil. Like, man, the first time we cared about our brothers, you dig?
I wonder how they decide who gets which spot. The corner of State and Bulldog seems like a bad place to panhandle. Cars move too stop–there’s not a good place to stand. But they were there too, Friday. I’d broken a twenty and had a few bills for the Native American-looking woman, there with a daughter. But the car behind me honked when I stopped to give it to her. Impatient, maybe angry.
My wife and I have agreed; if we can give ’em a few bucks, we try to. We don’t always. And I’m stingy about it. I’ll give a couple of bucks, or a few quarters, but if I have a ten or a twenty, it stays in my pocket. My charity has serious limitations.
We shouldn’t encourage bums, you hear. This is their job, panhandling, and a lucrative one. You’d be shocked how much they make at it too! Instead of just getting a real job, and doing real work, for an honest wage. Don’t be a sucker. They work on the sympathies of soft-headed liberals/Christians/doo-gooders. And if you give them money, they’ll just use it to get drunk.
I don’t care about any of that. Maybe some of them will get drunk. Or high. I don’t care. I see a family with children. The kids look hungry. I see an old guy, defeated by life, hanging on. I see a battered face, I see worn jeans and a filthy jacket and a backpack. A shopping cart, filled with junk. I see some of the worst shoes ever. Limping, like the shoes, crappy as they are, also don’t fit.
They don’t seem to hang out by Harmons. We don’t shop at Harmons, much. It’s a lot nicer grocery store, with more organic veggies, with expensive cheeses, with fancy breads and muffins. Not many processed foods. We shop there occasionally. They offer a service where they bag your groceries and then take them to a loading area, where you can park and they load ’em in your car. Harmon’s is north east Orem, closer to the nicer neighborhoods in Lindon and up in the river bottoms and foothills. You don’t see a lot of panhandlers there, outside Harmons. Rich folks equal slim pickins, I suspect.
And I wonder what it’s like in the northwest valley, up by Alpine and Lehi and Cedar Hills and Saratoga Springs. I once knew a guy who was a bishop in an Alpine ward. He said that from time to time, it was his duty, as bishop, to tell people who had moved in, ‘we think you probably move. We think you can’t afford to live here.’ Those wards, where Youth Conference involved trips to Cancun or Wahweap. I wonder where they shop for groceries. I wonder if panhandlers haunt their parking lots. Maybe so. Maybe it makes sense for them.
But in Provo, outside Macey’s or the Fresh Market on Center Street. They’re always there. And I bet the real poor-people grocer, Reams, I bet that place is crowded with homeless beggars. The people who shop at Reams, where you have to bag your own groceries, those are the people who know how fragile the line is between them an poverty. They may have less, but you can bet they give more.
And here I am, judging. In fact, it’s hard to see any part of homelessness that doesn’t get all caught up in judging, in self-righteousness, in feeling superior. We judge the homeless, assume their failures are entirely their fault, that they’re homeless because of recklessness or profligacy or self-indulgence or addiction. (What’s that great Mitch Hedberg line? ‘Alcoholism is the one disease people get mad at you for getting’). We try to think of ways to help them on our terms. ‘I’ll buy you breakfast?,’ we consider saying, instead of giving cash they’ll just drink up. But breakfast, at least he’s getting a decent meal. Or we think, ‘what if I offered him a job? I bet he’d turn it down. He’s a bum because he likes being a bum.’ We think that.
We like to judge beggars. But then, when we hand the guy a couple of bucks, we like to judge the people in all the other cars that don’t give him anything. I just did it, judging folks who shop at Harmon’s. We judge those who give more than we do, and those who give less than we do, and we judge ourselves too–‘why didn’t I give more (or less).’
And yet, it’s precisely when dealing with the poor that we’re not actually supposed to judge at all:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have? (Mosiah 4: 16-19)
And I’m not even going to get into the whole ‘the government should help more/no it shouldn’t, government programs just foster dependency’ debate. I know both sides of that argument, and perhaps there’s some merit to both. It does seem to me to be getting worse. And I know which arguments we’re not allowed to make, as Christians. We’re not allowed to say ‘it’s his fault. He gets nothing from me.’ We’re not even allowed to think it.
So my wife and I do what we can, give a little each time, wish it were more. Look into the faces of the poor, and see defeated eyes, rheumy eyes, crazy eyes. See reflected desperation or anger or mental illness. See our Heavenly Father’s children, down and out, down and falling, down to nothing in the richest country the world has ever seen. So we give.