Who misses the old Times Square?
Fifteen years ago, Mayor Rudy Giuliani directed the New York City police department to crack down on panhandling, along with offenses such as public urination and loitering. New York City is arguably cleaner and more welcoming without the aggressive begging and “squeegee terrorists” – street people who would clean your windshield at a stop light, uninvited, with the expectation of payment. The crackdown later spurred a city ordinance that essentially criminalizes homelessness.
Even in my mid-sized city, we have panhandlers. Our city code is clear and specific on panhandling: No aggression, no touching, no approaching more than an arm’s length without consent, no continued solicitation after a rebuff, no soliciting within 20 feet of an ATM, at a bus shelter or parking area, no soliciting occupants of a motor vehicle alongside a roadway, and an entire section defining “solicitation.” In other words, beggars beware – find a loophole or risk arrest.
A Hand Out
When I was a child, homeless people were called “bums.” Bums were the caricatured dirty, lazy drunks who slept on the park bench. Even then, in the un-sympathetic late 70’s and early 80’s, I had a liberal streak. I was tenderhearted and cried when I saw movies about homeless people, and cried more when I actually saw them on the street.
Perhaps this explains why when walking along with a group of people, a passerby down on their luck inevitably singles out ME to ask if I can spare some change. I must have “easy mark” tattooed on my forehead.
A Leg Up
I recently broke my own rule against giving hand outs. The rule was that I did not give out cash anymore, after having done so for many years. I didn’t open my purse on the street anymore and no longer rolled down my car window. It was difficult to turn a blind eye, but my better judgment and sense of safety eventually won out and I lately channeled my resources toward local shelter programs.
One tiny slip a few years ago was out of appreciation for near-performance art: a ragged young man held a cardboard sign that read, “Ugly, stupid and broke. Please Help.” The laugh alone was worth a couple bucks to me.
Then late last week as I wait for the traffic light to turn green, I spy yet another ragged young man holding a cardboard sign that is barely legible – something about traveling and being hungry. My bleeding heart and my better judgment begin to wrestle. Better judgment is beginning to prevail as traffic starts to move; I take my foot off of the brake and began to roll forward when I see the brown dog curled up at his feet. As traffic sweeps me forward and I pass the young man and his loyal dog, I mentally inventory the bills in my wallet.
I’ve been around the block
Being a light to the world is a basic Christian theme, one that holds hands with “Love Thy Neighbor.” While Christians don’t have a monopoly on heeding the call to provide for those in need, one really cannot be a Christian without it. As I drive along, my aversion to danger continues to wrestle with the little girl who cried.
That little girl sure is brave; I actually loop around the city and return to the intersection, but he is gone. Now that persistent little girl has me turning instead of continuing on my route home; they could not have gone far. Then I spot him and the brown dog heading for a nearby fast food restaurant.
Cheeseburger in Paradise
Should I give him the 20 dollar bill or the wad of singles? I put the money in my pocket and walk into the restaurant, patting the wiggling brown pit-mix along the way. The young man is a hulk of clothing dirtied from the road, easily six feet tall and over 200 pounds. When I stand by his elbow and say, “Excuse me,” he turns his gentle, wide open, unshaven face toward me with a smile. I ask him if he ordered anything for his dog. He replies, almost proudly, yes, he got her a cheeseburger. And for himself? Yes, the same. Where is home? Well, I don’t really have a home. I’m from Pennsylvania and I’m trying to get out west.
I press the bills into his hand and wish him luck, leaving quickly.
When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.
The whole rest of my evening is somber. Why didn’t I offer a kind word? Why didn’t I ask about his dog? Why didn’t I get a soda and sit with him? Presumptuous of me to think he would want my company, but I am still left feeling like I could have done MORE. Truthfully, fear drove me out of the restaurant quickly. But something stronger had driven me there in the first place.
I haven’t seen the young man since. Maybe he was able to move himself and his dog further west toward a future home. Perhaps my wad of singles helped them to get a couple more meals along the way. I won’t have another chance with him, but I know that there will be other opportunities to take a hand that is held out.