The man walking toward me grinned broadly from several feet away, and at first I thought he was being friendly. I smiled back. When his smile didn’t soften, widen, or disappear, I realized that it was a smile with a purpose, and that his purpose had fixed his face into a caricature. Before he reached me, I had accurately predicted what would happen next.
"Do you have a dollar?" he asked through his paralyzed grin.
"No," I lied. Immediately I felt uncomfortable, less with his question than my answer. Whenever a panhandler used to accost me, I spent at least the next few minutes thinking about my response. If I gave someone money, my reactions ranged from feeling that I’d done a good deed or feeling guilty because I knew I’d just bought the person’s next drink, to thinking grudgingly that they should act more grateful. If I lied, I wished I’d told the truth. Then I struggled with what the truth would be: "I have a dollar, but I need it"? "I have a dollar, but it’s mine"? "Yes, but I worked for it. Why don’t you get a job"? I felt best when I was out for a walk and didn’t have any money with me because then my "No" was guilt-free.
In the United States, the person who hasn’t been asked for money by a street person is rare. In parts of the country that are temperate year-round, such encounters are more frequent. After wrestling with my conscience over the man with the eternal grin, I decided it was long past time for me to do more than indulge in a few minutes of guilt. The next time someone asked me for money, I wanted to have a thoughtful, ethical policy I could live with.
When I got home that afternoon, I began to research the guidance offered by various spiritual traditions. I knew that Hebrew law clearly spells out the obligations of the faithful to the poor. Generations after the laws were written, a long line of prophets found it necessary to take the wealthy to task for ignoring the poor. They threatened national extinction if the rich didn’t change and promised great blessing if they did. The need for these constant reminders points to a deeply ingrained pattern of avoidance, not unlike my own way of responding to panhandlers.
Our reasons for not giving are many and varied. The one I hear most often is the concern that if we give, we might be enabling addicts to purchase their next fix. I remember a conversation with Deirdre, my friend from Hawaii, who had been part of a spiritual movement based on Hindu principles. When I met Deirdre, I lived in Berkeley, California, where the climate invites a large homeless population. I knew she walked to work, and I asked once how she dealt with panhandlers on her way.
"I just set aside a certain amount of money every day," she said. "Every time someone asks, I give them a dollar. When the money I set aside is gone, I tell them I don’t have any more to give that day."
"How about if you know the person is heading for the liquor store on the corner?" I asked.
"It’s not up to me to judge what they do with the money. They ask, I give."
As I continued my research, I ran across a surprising verse in Proverbs. This verse goes beyond Deirdre’s principle of nonjudgment, advising, "Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more" (Prov. 31:6-7). If a potential giver followed this advice, fear of supporting an addiction would no longer be an obstacle.
The Christian Bible also supports giving to panhandlers. Jesus told a story in which a beggar named Lazarus was the hero. A rich man, who despised Lazarus and refused him even the crumbs from his table, ended up in hell, at least in part because of his stinginess. Lazarus was carried to heaven in the arms of the angels, to rest in the bosom of the great patriarch Abraham. There are also several accounts of Jesus telling wealthy people to sell all they have, give the money to the poor, and follow him.
It’s easy for me to protest that I’m not rich, and can therefore be excluded from the injunctions addressed to the rich. Yet by most standards in the world, and even in the United States, because I eat three well-balanced meals a day, live in a warm house and drive a car, I am wealthy. Although a sense of fairness sometimes makes me want panhandlers to work as hard as I do, I found nothing in the religious literature, including the Koran and the Upanishads, to support justice in that form. Furthermore, many years of experience as a therapist and counselor have taught me that the circumstances that bring people to the point of living on or from the streets are so varied as to defy judgement.
Some of my friends won’t give money to street people because they feel it’s essential to look at the bigger picture. They believe that if we support panhandling, we are supporting the deeply flawed system that creates the panhandler’s way of coping with poverty. "The whole economy needs to be changed," one friend says. "Money for the military-industrial complex needs to be done away with, so we can create jobs that support the country’s infrastructure and social needs." While I agree that we need massive systemic change, I also know that this kind of change is long-term and does nothing to answer the immediate needs of the poor.
There is a cherished belief in the United States that charity is shameful to the recipient. And there is something shameful about the bowing and scraping, the unchanging smile, the ways in which so many panhandlers try to ingratiate themselves for something as miniscule as a dollar. We can rationalize that a gift of money lowers the supplicant’s self-esteem. However, it’s likely that desperation born of hunger reduces self-esteem to a level of secondary importance. Besides, is it really the panhandler’s act that denigrates him, or is it our society’s attitudes? There are societies where giving directly to the poor is honorable, a way of maintaining social equilibrium. Many Native American tribes have give-away traditions that help to equalize the wealth in the community. In medieval China, the rich saw charity as a way to make up for being excessively wealthy. In those contexts there is no shame to the giver or the receiver.
Some fear that street people are simply taking advantage of them. They point to the odd folklore about wealthy panhandlers, con artists who beg hundreds to thousands of dollars a day and live high on the hog, their tattered "work" clothes to the contrary. There may be a few wealthy panhandlers, but I think they are so rare that they don’t present a genuine obstacle to giving. I’m prepared to include them with addicts and alcoholics.
In the end, many of us don’t mind giving to the poor, if we just don’t have to give to them directly. We may feel that if we give to the Salvation Army or the food pantry, we can be sure that our money will be spent on food, clothing, and shelter—the right things. I would never suggest not giving to such groups; the work they do is invaluable. However, our reluctance to give directly may be less for altruistic reasons than for our own comfort. If I look into the eyes of the person on the street, if I make any kind of real contact, I have to reckon with the possibility that I could be her. I had a dream once that I had become a drunken derelict, a bag lady. The dream starkly represented how out-of-control my life had gotten. Upon awakening, I knew that only grace was holding things together for me. The homeless people I meet face-to-face remind me how easily I could slip from living paycheck-to-paycheck to living on the streets. Most often when I have given to a panhandler, I have studiously kept my eyes on my wallet; said a fast, most often insincere, "You’re welcome"; and gone my way as quickly as possible.
My dream also had a much deeper message: we are all the same. I am one with the bag lady, one with the alcoholic needing a drink to allay her delirium tremens, one with the man sleeping in a church doorway under layers of coats and blankets in the freezing weather. If we are the same, it seems that the Golden Rule must apply. What would it mean to treat a panhandler as I would like to be treated? Would it mean creating a job for him? Sending her to the Salvation Army? Or granting him the dignity of trusting that he knows what he needs, at least in that moment, and is asking for it, and that if I have it, I can give it to him with a clear conscience?
Many spiritual traditions teach that every person we meet is our teacher, provided we are willing to learn. There is a Zen story (from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps) in which a well-known teacher had disappeared from public life. One day one of his disciples ran into him. He was very excited, and asked permission to become a follower again. "If you can live the way I do, even for a couple of days, then maybe," the master told him and took him to a place under a bridge where he lived with other beggars. The first night one of the beggars died, and the master and disciple buried him in the morning. "We won’t have to beg today," said the master, "because our friend left some food behind." The disciple tried to eat the food and couldn’t make himself do it. "I knew you couldn’t live the way I do," the master said. "Now leave and don’t bother me again."
I’m not sure I even begin to understand what I might learn if I lived the way the Zen master did. My Danish friend Jan tried it briefly, living in a park with homeless people. Afterwards he told me, "It was amazing. You would expect that people who have nothing would take whatever they can, that you would have to guard everything you have. But it isn’t like that. They have so much respect for each other. One time I left my guitar on a park bench by accident when I went to get something to eat. When I came back, it was still there, exactly where I left it. Anyone could’ve pawned it while I was gone; instead they watched it for me. There’s all this caring and watching out
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