Saturday, December 08, 2007

Confronted by Poverty

There's the man who walks up and down the median in front of my office every day with an empty McDonald's cup that he extends to every driver who passes by.

There's the man who stands in the median in front of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving selling copies of the Washington Post, obviously in need of the money that brings him.

There's the lady who sits in the front-door overhang of the office building a block away from mine, with a shopping cart containing everything she owns.

And there's the often-drunk man who approached me in McDonald's recently, asking if I could find him a job and telling me that he used to have a job at the World Bank.

I see these people often -- not all in the same day, every day, but often enough to know that they're there. And I'm torn about not helping them. A. and I give as much as we can -- to our church, to one of the D.C.-area kitchens, to a little girl we're supporting in Honduras. But what about these folks I see every day, the ones I turn my head to avoid as I pass by; what do I do?

Admittedly, I hold a great degree of cynicism about what these folks would do if I gave them money. I suppose it's a lingering feeling from when I lived in south Alabama, and was approached one evening in downtown Mobile by a man who said he and his friend had just gotten off work at the state docks, that his truck wouldn't start, and that he needed a few bucks to get home. Without thought, I gave him some money; after all, I could see the man's truck and his friend just on the other side of the square. The very next night, the same man approached me with the same story. It wasn't until I asked him if he was still having problems getting home from the day before that he realized who I was -- and I realized I had been duped.

There are the stories I've heard from friends of mine who have been approached by people asking for money, and who instead off to buy them a meal -- only to find the man or woman who has approached them gets mad and starts yelling at them, saying that they hadn't asked for a meal.

What am I supposed to do? How can I possibly figure out the difference between those legitimately battling poverty and those just looking to hustle a few bucks from passersby?

All of this got me to thinking about povery in general, and I remembered this (somewhat lengthy) passage that I read in William Stringfellow's My People is the Enemy:

Poverty was my very first client in Harlem - a father whose child died from being attacked by a rat. Poverty is a widow on welfare whose landlord cuts the heat, knowing that the winter will end before a complaint is processed. Poverty is a drug addict who steals from his own family or pawns the jacket off his back to get another "fix." Poverty is being evicted from a housing project because the project manager determines that the family is "undesirable." Poverty is a Puerto Rican shopkeeper whose store is stoned when he tries to relocate south of the 96th Street boundary of East Harlem. Poverty is an adolescent with a tested I.Q. of 130 who cannot read or write the English language well enough to get other than the most menial jobs. Poverty is the pay-off to a building inspector not to report violations of the building code. Poverty is a young couple who marry because that is the only way to get out of the tenements and into a project, and whose marriage fails, and who have neither the grounds for a divorce in New York nor the price for a divorce in another jurisdiction. Poverty is being awakened in the midle of the night by a welfare investigator who demands to search your apartment to be sure you are not cheating the taxpayers. Poverty is the incapacity to complain against the landlord because you can't afford to take a day off from your job or from minding the family to go to court. Poverty is a kid who wants to be adopted to escape from the slums but whom no one wants. Poverty is a boy whose father has thrown him out, a boy who needs a place to stay. Poverty is living in darkness after the electric current has been turned off as a fire hazard, and waiting for six or seven days until someone is sent to repair the obsolete wiring.

Poverty is the enormous burden of waiting - waiting for hours for a doctor to examine a sick child at the hospital clinic, waiting for an interview with a social worker, waiting at the employment office, waiting in line for what the government ironically calls "surplus" food, waiting for everything, everywhere you go.

Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and clothes and heat and housing and rest and play and work.

It's a beautiful passage, and a difficult passage; Stringfellow has so eloquently put a face to the different types of poverty that so many people are battling. But having a face put on the problem -- and seeing the faces every day -- what should we do? Do we give money to everyone every time they ask, not knowing or concerning ourselves about which is the mother trying to feed her children and which is the person looking to buy a six-pack of beer? Do we give money to no one, instead sending assistance directly to the shelters and food banks and churches?

What do you do?


Sandie said...

No surprise, I struggle with this too. I used to give money not worrying about what they were going to do with it, then I actually carried food (lunchables, fruit and peanutbutter crackers, etc)around for a while that I would give, when we had the money I would bring home everyone I saw with a sign that said will work for food and I would give them a job, feed them, let them take a shower and usually give them 25-40 bucks on top of that depending on the job they did.

Now though with money righter than ever, I do what you do, I give 10% to church (and our church does a lot of out reach), I give to two different community shelters (one is specifically for women and children and one is for everyone), and I give to an Indian School that provides education to kids battling poverty. Then at the end of the month, I give about 50 dollars in 5-10 increments to other various groups that I believe in their work.

I feel very torn because I am not giving to the individuals anymore, but I also feel that to break the cycle of poverty some accountablity and education have to go with the help. I also hate the fact that I have had to cut my giving back so much, but I try and give extra time, make sure I at least make eye contact and talk to the people asking for help. I just know there is no right answer or perfect way.

Kansas Bob said...

I'll come clean.. I walk on by.. guess I am just too cyncical.. wish there was a way to really help them.

rdl said...

I will have to come back and read the italized part later. But just keep doin whatever you can. My son & volunteered the past 2 winters - at out temple that was acting as a shelter in the basement for a wk. we brought dinner one night. and my son took up a collection of socks, hats, gloves,underwear and dunkin donut gift cards.

Dan Mayes said...

Matt, I've always tried hard to live by this rule: If you're going to err, err on the side of grace. So I try to be discerning in the people and causes I give to, but I also try hard to fight against my own judgmentalism.

Additionally, one of the things I've chosen to do about this situation is vote for people whose policies seek to right the sitatuation. Sadly, I don't see any of those people on your endorsements. Not that all of their opponents are the best, either.

Still, I know it's a difficult personal struggle, for both of us.

Nancy said...

I walk on. And feel crummy about doing it. The common wisdom Near Philadelphia is that panhandlers, no matter what they say, will use the money to buy drugs.

So to help them, and not enable them, I give to shelters, believing that they know the shelters are there and if they truly want warmth, food, bed, and not drug, there is a place to go for those things.

But it is difficult.