Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I'll always give to the homeless

I could see the driver behind me shaking his head in a slow scold as I lowered the power window to hand the homeless guy a $5.

I was crawling through traffic in my Saturn Vue. The guy behind was turtleing along in an Escalade. The homeless guy was freezing his bony ass off begging alongside a Pittsburgh parkway. Guaranteed, either of our vehicles would have seemed like The Ritz to the bearded bum.

Had the situation been different, I might have enjoyed a philosophical discussion with Escalade about the virtues of giving to homeless people. It’s rare I come to any argument by way of the moral high ground, and I’ve heard and vanquished all the arguments against giving.

Tell me he’s just going to spend it on booze and I’ll ask if you’d prefer he run out and buy a new tie. Chances are good I’ll spend the same five on beers with buddies, too.

Say I’d be better off giving the money to a homeless shelter and I’ll say I do that, too.

Argue that studies show I may be perpetuating his homelessness with my handouts and I’ll point out anecdotes that refute those studies.

For the past few years whenever I’m likely to encounter a homeless person, I always lunch someplace where I can order tasty takeout wrapped to go for the first homeless person I see. This is particularly gratifying if I’m hungry for one of Pittsburgh’s famous Primanti’s cheese steak sandwiches.

It’s a tremendous treat (meat, slaw and fries on Italian bread) for those of us who have access to three hot meals a day. But giving one to a homeless person always reminds me of giving Christmas presents to 2 year olds. They can’t comprehend the why of the situation. They’re just overjoyed by the gesture.

The Bible says the ideal is to treat every homeless person as if they were Jesus Christ, Himself.

Well, for the love of God, that’s unrealistic. Am I supposed to flop down there on the sidewalk with him, hold my nose and -- Amen! -- wait for him start preaching? Should I take him home and give him tubby time after my daughters are done?

I suppose I could crucify him, but that’d likely to lead to controversy.

So I do what I can. I hand the guy a few bucks, look him right in the eye and say, “You hang in there, man.”

I have a slightly different perspective on giving to the homeless than most people for the simple reason that I know what it’s like to be homeless.

It was for a story about 10 years ago. I had to a day on a busy Pittsburgh sidewalk with a “Will Work for Food” sign. I spent a couple of weeks gruffing up, put on my filthiest duds and -- thinking I might as well have a little fun with it -- stationed myself right off the bus stop where my dear white-haired Mom used to go to work.

I’ll save that part of the story for another time. I will say Mom came through with some change, some motherly warnings about other territorial panhandlers, but ultimately no offer to let me move back home.

In all, I got a measly $23 over about 10 hours of sidewalk begging. What stayed with me is how utterly worthless people made me feel. I was polite. Friendly. I spent that whole stifling August day trying to make earnest eye contact with every passerby. Few did. Sure, it was a gag, but I couldn’t believe how few people would even acknowledge the presence of a fellow human being in struggling circumstances.

I suppose that day launched my trajectory of becoming a compassionate liberal who snorts at people who fail to understand the vast gulf between that mindset and the masquerade some call compassionate conservatism.

Now, the flip side of the story: I spent the next day in the exact same spot, same get-up, but this time with a sign that read, “Why Lie? Need Beer Money. Let’s Party!!!”

Strangers high-fived me. I had one cab driver stop, leave his vehicle and give me $5 while his smiling fare waved a thumb’s up from the back seat. All told, I made $89.75 in just five hours.

I don’t know why I dream of making lots of money because if I did, I’m fairly certain I’d give it all away.

Even in this time of uncertainty and struggle, I’ve got more than so many unfortunates ever will. And I could lose all I have and it wouldn’t matter one bit. I’m confident I’ll never endure hunger or want.

You see, I still have that sign.

1 comment:

The Unbreakable Child said...

good for you Chris!!! Very nice post.