I was 23, maybe 24, imbued with a naivete and perspective that only a freshly-minted private university graduate could comprehend. My dear friend and Grey Advertising co-worker Lisa and I had just finished dinner at one of the newest and trendiest restaurants, and were chatting it up and laughing as two close girlfriends do, while walking on the bustling streets of New York City.
Suddenly, a man who had a sleeping bag on the sidewalk and evidently made his home on a street grate, asked me for money. I must have clearly dismissed him because the next thing I remember, he was yelling at me, “Fucking bitch!” My friend Lisa laughed hysterically, “Only you would get that reaction from a homeless man.”
What did I do? I may have called him a bum under my breath. I’m not sure as I generally possess the worst recollection of former events. All I know is, at that particular time in my life, I had no compassion for someone like him. I really didn’t. I believed that he had himself to blame for his destitute circumstances, and his begging for handouts was desperate and unforgiving. Stop playing victim already. I was harsh.
Fast forward to today, and I don’t see it quite clearly in black and white anymore. Nowadays, every day I see the same late 50ish year-old homeless man wander Pacific Coast Highway along the Dana Point and South Laguna Beach, California stretch. He wears what appears to be his only, long-sleeved green jacket despite the 80 degree temperatures, and his black locks wear like a Rastafarian – long and uncombed. I don’t know anything about him, but like a permanent city fixture, I can expect to see him every day… sitting, standing, or just hanging out on a bus seat. Yesterday, I caught him talking to himself, and fervently shaking his head.
I’m not sure what my reaction would be if he asked me for money. I do know that I wouldn’t be the young, insensitive girl with the same response I had 15 years ago. I’ve become more cognizant that maybe my Rastafarian man has been plagued by mental illness, or recovering from an addiction, or possibly a loner who is misunderstood or has a hard time relating to people, or maybe, he just can’t catch a break during these harder economic times.
Still, I’m not an enabler. Whereas my very generous boyfriend would handily give him his spare change, I would not. I do not want him using the money so that he can go to the nearest liquor store to purchase alcohol or cigarettes. Also, I don’t think that others should encourage begging, either. I truly believe that giving handouts makes people lazy.
However, I do believe that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke10:27). I work very hard, every day, to observe this tenet but I find it to be one of my most difficult life tasks. If I love my neighbor as myself, I must imagine how I would want to be treated if in the same situation. A dismissal of one’s value on earth is not how I would want to be considered.
So, I try to be generous. But I do it through volunteer efforts, and using a more organized form of donation-giving via my regular church tithe and the select charities I give to annually. I would offer him food or drink, but not actual money.
Is this enough? Personally, I never feel like it is ever enough. But, I don’t know. Only God knows, and I hope He sees a heart that is trying.