One of the big questions I’ve wrestled with in my life and ministry is this: What is the best way to help the poor? The answer isn’t always an easy one.
Where I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on any given day I’ll see at least one and sometimes two or three people – 99% men – holding up signs saying “Hungry – Anything will help” or something similar.
They stand outside the entrance to Costco, at the freeway exit near my office, on a corner near my home, etc.
A couple of days ago, John over at The Christian Dollar shared a great post on why Christians should give to help the poor.
I commented that I totally agreed with the points he shared.
But then I asked, “What if the person isn’t really poor, but a con man?”
Because after we ask WHY we should give to help the poor, I believe we need to ask HOW we should best help the poor – in ways that truly help and don’t enslave people or enable unproductive behavior.
My Life on the Streets
How do I know this? Because I grew up on the street.
Well, OK. It was Sesame Street.
Actually I grew up in the country. But then I moved to the city right after high school and, 25 years later, I’m still here.
In my mid-20’s I had a mid-life crisis and felt called to quit my job and become an urban missionary. So, for four years, I worked on the streets of inner city Grand Rapids doing homeless crisis intervention.
I mostly focused on mentally ill street people who had “fallen through the cracks” of the social service system. But believe me, I got to know plenty of “generic” homeless people too.
From my experience, I’ve found that nearly all of the people who panhandle or hold up signs asking for money are looking for a fast buck, not true help.
How did I discover this? I took the time to get to know them.
I introduced myself and got to know their name. I asked them to tell me their story of how they came to be in such a dire situation that they were out asking strangers for money. It is only by taking 10-15 minutes to get to know them and their situation that we can begin to discern how best to help.
I ask questions like:
- Do you make it a habit to ask routine strangers to give you money?
- How long have you been doing this? Where do you live (what kind of home or arrangement)?
- What did you do for food yesterday?
- What are you going to do tomorrow?
- What are you doing to find a long-term solution to this situation?
- Who has been helping you (what agency or person)?
- Do you know where you can go to get free meals and groceries in this town?
- Don’t you have any family and friends who can help you?
- When’s the last time you really worked?
I found that if I asked enough questions and truly tried to discern what was going on in this person’s life, the con men would get frustrated and would tell me to forget it because I was taking up their time and keeping them from getting money from other people.
But those who genuinely needed help were glad that someone cared and wanted to really get to know them. And when I could sense that, I was glad to find a way to help, whether that meant to take them somewhere for a meal, help them find a place to stay for the night, or whatever.
I believe that if well-meaning people keep giving out money without taking the time to truly discern the right way to help, we’re perpetuating the problem and encouraging them to keep on panhandling and soliciting the public.
But if we take the time to get to know people asking for help, we can begin to discern how best to help in a way that truly does help instead of enable.
Will Stand on Street Corner for Alcohol
By the way, yesterday, on my way to take my son to his basketball practice, I saw a man maybe in his mid-20’s walk up to a street corner to go to work. One he got into position, he opened up his jacket, unfolded a cardboard sign that asked for money, and then stooped over to look like he’s crippled and in pain. Right before my very eyes.
On my way to my office this morning, I saw a guy standing at the exit ramp holding a sign asking for money. I looked to the left, under the overpass where I’ve often seen people hanging out drinking alcohol, and I saw a couple of people sitting there as usual. Waiting, I guess, for their friend to earn a few more bucks.
If I gave these guys money without getting to know them and their situation, would I really be helping the poor? Is that what Jesus really had in mind?
Has “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat” now become “When I needed another beer, you hooked me up”?
In The Tragedy of American Compassion, author Marvin Olasky explains that the word compassion really means “to suffer with” someone in their time of need. Today, it has devolved into meaning merely “to give to” someone.
To “suffer with” means to get to know. It means to make their problem your problem. You can’t do that when you give out $5 or $10 or $20 bucks and go about your merry way.
Everyone I’ve known who has worked among the poor, and nearly everyone whom I’ve heard speak on the subject, has said that you should never give money blindly to those who go door to door or who stand on corners holding up signs, or who stick their hand out as you walk past them downtown.
Are these homeless ministry experts cruel? Don’t they know anything about compassion? And how can they call themselves Christians?
They say that because they know. Because they’ve taken the time to get to know those who are asking for help.
If you can’t or won’t take the time to truly get to know the person asking for help, to discern their need and how best to help, your gift of money or food may be no real help at all. And may do more harm than good.
What’s your take on how best to help the poor? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!!