Giving Money on the Street – My History of Failure

I live in Sacramento. Like many urban areas, the number of people living in tents under the freeway continues to grow. People wait at intersections or outside stores and ask me for money.

I am moved and want to help, but I don’t know what actual help looks like. The scope of the problem paralyzes me – immense and complex with a confusing mix of structural, societal, economic, medical, psychological and personal factors. The situation requires me to ask, what are the limits of my moral obligation to others?

I feel powerless to affect real change at a large scale, but there must be something I can do at the human scale, a response that alleviates suffering in a meaningful way. I have tried different approaches over the years, struggling to find something that does more good than harm. I never know if I am succeeding.

Long ago, a psychologist told me that giving money was a mistake because addicts always use it for alcohol or drugs. He said they won’t change until they hit rock bottom, and providing money just keeps them in a painful cycle. So for years, I had a pat answer – giving money causes harm, so don’t. 

But this didn’t feel right. I realized my pat answer gave me an easy out that allowed me to brush the whole situation aside. It made an impossible dilemma way too easy. I was using this logic to rationalize my exit from the stream of empathy between them and me, shutting off my emotional connection to their suffering.

I started looking directly into their eyes when I said no, to make a connection. Sometimes I saw indifference, sometimes desperation. As I looked at each person as an individual, many of them didn’t look to me like addicts. Maybe I could base my decision to give on whether they seemed like they were addicted. How would I tell? I thought I could look for bloodshot eyes, or the smell of alcohol, or other telltale signs. I started using this criteria as my basis for giving money, believing this would do more good than harm.

But it soon became apparent I was not very good at diagnosis. On several occasions, I watched as the person I gave to walked a block and turned directly into a liquor store. I didn’t feel I had done good at all.

I’ve tried giving substitutes for money, asking if there was something I could buy for them instead. Some said no, others gave me pretty specific shopping lists. Once, a man smiled with anticipation as he asked for Cheetos, Seven-up and a bag of soft gummie candies. I thought, ‘Okay, who am I to deny him simple pleasures?’ But I threw in a nut covered protein bar for the sake of nutrition. 

When I handed them over, he took everything but the protein bar, saying, “I can’t chew that.”  Pointing to his mouth, I saw he had almost no teeth. 

Recently, I started keeping a cache of singles in my wallet and my car to give to anyone who asks. Jesus said, ‘give to those who ask,’ so who am I to judge who is deserving or deny them the autonomy to have and spend money? This gives me another simple rule. Perhaps it, too, lets me exit the stream of mutual suffering too quickly.

I told my strategy to a friend who works in the field with the homeless. He told me a devastating fact:  in his experience, 80% of the people asking for money are being trafficked. They hand over their money to a controller who provides them drugs, security, or a place in the tent to sleep.

My stomach sank. Was I again contributing to more harm?

The one approach I have tried that hits closest to the mark is to give each person my attention, to affirm the basic respect of personhood, to show they are not an inconvenience to be ignored or dismissed. I give eye contact and a kind look, a greeting, and maybe an opening question, like “How’s it going?” 

Sometimes, the person is not interested in connecting. Sometimes, I get a long story. I stop and listen. I hope they can feel my presence and the stream of care coming from my heart.

I also try open to the stream of hurt, pain or worry coming from their heart. I try to be patient, to not shut down or turn away, to stay with them in this mutual space of care and hurt, wound and repair. There is always good in that.

Photo by Steve Sphar, Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin

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