Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Brother, can you spare a dime? 

Well, that homeless guy--let's call him Ricky--showed up at church again on Sunday. Once again we were challenged to welcome the needy stranger, the one who doesn't quite fit in. In theory, that shouldn't be a problem. A church should be overflowing with God's love for our neighbors--even (especially?) those who might be sleeping in our backyard. But of course, reality falls short of the ideal. Some of us are caught by surprise. Some might be brought face to face with our prejudices. It's uncomfortable. It's one of those times when we're reminded that Jesus wasn't joking when He spoke of picking up our cross and following Him.

For myself, dealing with homeless folks has become one of the burdens of living in Seattle. ... That sounds cold, doesn't it? I've learned that my compassion can get used up real quick. Anyway, when I was growing up in the Windy Suburbs, poverty was something that happened somewhere else. We'd gather up food for the poor folks in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood and send it all off with a warm feeling. I didn't actually see Uptown until I was an adult. And even then I only passed through. When I started working and eventually moved into the city, it was in a middle/working class neighborhood. I encountered panhandlers downtown, but they never ventured over to my neighborhood. I could cheerfully give them some spare change and then forget them as I went about my business. Seattle, however, was different. There seemed to be a lot more panhandlers about in the downtown and waterfront areas. And even in the neighborhoods I lived in--ones I considered comparable to my old 'hood in Chicago--I would occasionally run into folks in front of stores or at bus stops who needed a bit of cash. I continued to give, but the novelty was fading. Then I started encountering the pros....

Actually, I think I first encountered a pro in Chicago, but I didn't have all that much money on me. My first in Seattle was a young woman who wove a good tale and took me for all the money I had in my wallet. 'Twas only 20 or 30 bucks. Anyway, when she tried to talk me into getting some more bucks from the ATM, it dawned on me that I was being scammed. I sent her off, foolishly without asking her to return the money I already gave her. (Years later, I had the pleasure of hearing the exact same sob story from another woman. That time I managed to keep my money.) Another time, a man and a woman--Herman and Harriet--showed up at church looking for help. I must have given them a few bucks, but unlike times past, they came back for more. They were even clever enough to get ahold of my home address and phone number. That started a relationship that lasted a few years as I would hear from them from time to time. (Separately, that is. They seemed to have had a falling out with each other soon after visiting our church.)

Being treated like the Hamburger Savings and Loan bugged me at the time, but I really have to be thankful for the experience. It made me stop and think as to what I was doing when dealing with needy people and eventually it sent Noodles and I scurrying to the Union Gospel Mission for advice. Based on that, we eventually agreed with each other not to give out cash anymore, but rather try to give panhandlers the actual goods--groceries, bus fares, etc.-- they were trying to afford. I still wonder if that was the smart move or not. On one hand, I don't have to worry that I'm directly supporting someones drug habit, but on the other hand my plan is easily thwarted by folks who need to pay for expensive things like a month's rent or emergency transport out of state. I also end up sacrificing something I value as much as money--my time--as I go to the grocery store, laundromat or what have you to buy what's needed. It does give me a chance to treat these folks like people, but sometimes that's not a great thing.

So anyway, Ricky has now made a second visit to my "world". His personality is a bit forceful, but I kinda like the guy. He didn't show up with his bedroll this time, so I think he managed to find a place to stay. (Communicating with him is a major challenge. His English is limited and my Spanish class was a long time ago.) Of course, now he needs (reading?) glasses and a second pair of pants. I'm tempted to buy the former. If nothing else, it might call his bluff--assuming it is a bluff. For all I know, he may truly be interested in reading his Bible with them. And therein lies the dilemma. Is it worse to risk getting ripped off or to not help someone who truly needs it?