A friend of mine who had lived many years on the streets prior to entering the shelter once asked me “What is the definition of insanity?” I was not sure what she was getting at, so she enlightened me saying, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” She then went on to explain that she would sit on the same corner begging for money day after day, eat at the local soup kitchen, and then take the money and buy drugs and get high night after night; all the while praying for release from her addiction. She was enslaved to heroin and day after day, well meaning travelers paid to keep her in bondage.
I am not suggesting that every panhandler is an addict nor is every panhandler homeless. Some are truly in need, some mentally ill, and others simply making a living the only way they know how. It is impossible to know someone’s full story while flying past them at 35 miles an hour. However, I refuse to allow my ignorance of the truth become an instrument of destruction in someone’s life. For this reason, I am against giving money to panhandlers when there is no personal relationship.
So, what is a compassionate response to panhandling? Prayer and a smile are a good start. However, God often uses people to answer prayers and I believe God would have us do more. Homeward is the coordinating agency for homeless services in the city of Richmond. They have been running an anti-panhandling campaign called “Real Change Not Spare Change,” and they offer some sound advice.
On the Homeward website, you will find a “street sheet.” The street sheet is a listing of emergency services providers in the city of Richmond including feeding sites, shelters and social services. You will also find a special card that can be given to those in need which has feeding sites as well as bus ticket funds. It is Homeward’s desire, as well as the rest of the homeless service providers and the local police, that people would give out the street sheets and the cards instead of cash. Each of the homeless services providers listed on the card and street sheet, work to try to get people real help. Help that will not keep them on the street corner but break them free of that insanity.
Some may ask, “Is it a matter of the person on the corner not knowing where to get food?” The answer is, “Probably not.” However, when they are ready, they will have the information they need to get the help. I have had many addicts share that until they hit rock bottom and were willing to change, nothing anyone said or did would make any difference. If someone is unwilling to seek help, the only thing we can do is help to keep them safe and healthy until God moves them to do more. I think Homeward offers us a very practical place to start. However, there is much more we can do.
In the coming weeks, I am going to be a part of a number of conversations about how to more humanely respond to the needs of the most vulnerable residents in our city starting with a Faith Leaders Forum on the closing of Monroe Park on November 4th. Monroe park is home to many homeless and at-risk individuals and it is being closed by the city for renovation in the near future. Those who want to help insure that services are available to those who depend on the services currently offered in the park are invited to attend this forum. For more information you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will also be participating in the November 18th , Richmond Hill’s Clergy Convocation, which is a conversation for clergy and other people of faith around the needs facing our city. In addition, I am going to be a presenter at the Governor’s Housing Conference which is also on November 18th. (still trying to figure out who to be in two places at once.) I hope you will follow these conversations through this blog, or join me at these events as we seek to address some tough issues facing our community.