I’ve been doing this weekly speaking gig in the Chicago loop. For those of you outside Chicagoland, “the loop” is what you would call “downtown” Chicago. And like any downtown area, one of things you’re guaranteed to see, is the homeless. Now, I’m no expert on homelessness. I’ve met my share of homeless people, done a few overnights at the shelters, etc. But any readers who want to chime in with a reply, please do. Anyway, as far as I can see, there are three kinds of homeless people. There are the ones who are mentally ill. There are the unintentional homeless, the ones who are homeless because of extenuating circumstances like loss of job, loss of spouse, etc. And then there are the intentional homeless. The ones who apparently consider homelessness their day job.
This last group, I see them in Chicago, as I walk down the street to the church where I’m speaking. The same people in the same spots every day. I wonder what would happen if a new guy tried to move in on someone’s turf. They go to the shelters at night, but during the day, they sit on their plastic milk crates, shaking their styrofoam cups so the change jingles, and that jingling sound calls out to passers-by everything that needs to be said. All these people need is for enough of us to put enough change in that cup to get the next meal. And it appears that they do – they get through the day, sleep in the shelter, and get up the next day and do the same thing again. And from what I’m told, people have offered to try to help them move beyond this lifestyle, but for the most part they politely decline.
Now, I never carry change (mental note: add parking meters to list of grievances). So I’ve gotten into the habit of getting gift cards from a certain “restaurant” that I know is in every city (think golden arches and a clown). As a suburban guy, I’m not in the city that often, so whenever I have to go into Chicago, or when I go to another urban area for a conference or whatever, I get some gift cards, and when I see a homeless person, I give him or her one. That way I know the person will get a decent (everything’s relative) meal.
But when I realized that these people were homeless for a living, my first reaction was to be kind of ticked off. After all, I’ve been giving them money all this time thinking they’re down on their luck, and I guess assuming maybe the gift card or the money I put in the cup would help them get back on their feet. So I actually stopped doing the gift card thing, and went to dollar bills – still more than most people give, but less than I used to.
But then I started thinking – why am I upset about this? These people are making a choice to live off the grid – like John Connor in Terminator 3. Even more than that, these people are truly living one day at a time, like Jesus said we should (Matthew 6:25-34). So why is my first reaction to look down on them for making this choice?
It used to be that the question about giving to the homeless was, Do I want to give them money if they might use it to buy booze? I worked through that, and decided it wasn’t up to me to worry about what they do with the money. But now it’s a whole new question. The new question is, Do I want to chip in on the salary for a guy who sits on the corner shaking a cup for a living? Well… it turns out I do.
First of all, you couldn’t pay me enough to sit outside all day in the winter in Chicago. So I really do feel something for these people. I don’t know exactly what it is – Do I feel sorry for them? Do I feel compassion? I don’t even know. I just know that it’s so cold out, it’s all I can do to walk the one block from the parking garage to the church, and I’m cursing under my breath the whole way there. So there’s that. But I also have to say that I feel something like respect for these people – not only are they willing to brave the cold, but they have found a way to live without dealing with a lot of the things that drive wealthy people to an early grave. At the very least, they don’t pay taxes, and I want to support anyone who can stick it to the IRS (the only institution since the Inquisition where you’re guilty until proven innocent).
OK, so maybe they don’t really have much of a choice in the end. Maybe they couldn’t get a job even if they tried. Or maybe if they did get a job, it wouldn’t be enough to get a place to live and pay the bills, and they would only be buying all the stress of being underemployed. I really don’t know, and I’m sure it’s different for each person. I only know that there is some similarity between the intentionally homeless and the monks who take a vow of voluntary poverty. Except that the monks have a bed to sleep in. I’m not trying to glorify homelessness, I’m just trying to think through my relationship with the homeless.
As a historian, I always go back to the early Christian Church and the historical documents. As it turns out, not only has the Church always advocated giving to the poor, it has always thought of almsgiving as a form of penance. One early document says if you can’t afford to give to the poor, skip a meal (fast) and give the money you would have spent on that meal. In fact, some early Christian writers had this idea that there’s a symbiotic relationship between the rich and the poor. (And by the way, in this context I count myself among the rich, not because I have money to spare – I don’t – but because I have everything I need, and compared to the poor I am rich.)
The symbiotic relationship between rich and poor assumes that there will always be both rich and poor, and they exist to help each other. If you have money, God gave it to you so you will have surplus resources to give to the poor. In other words, God gave you what you have so you would share it. If you’re poor, God expects you to pray for those who share with you. In fact, when I put money in the styrofoam cup, often the person will say, “God bless you.” I don’t know what that means to them, but it means something to me. So each one has a ministry. The rich give worldly resources to the poor, and the poor pray that the rich will gain spiritual wealth. Now, I know that this seems oversimplified. And maybe it even justifies poverty and excuses the rich from taking on the injustices that create poverty. I get that, and I understand that our response to poverty has to go beyond just giving to the poor. And I don’t really know if giving to the poor earns me brownie points in heaven. But somehow that’s not the point.
So what is the point, you ask? The point is that from now on, I’m not going to worry about what a homeless person might do with my money. I’m not going to wonder about his or her lifestyle. I’ve liberated myself from those questions. My only job is to give, if only because there is someone asking for something (Matthew 5:42). The only problem is, when I put a dollar bill in the styrofoam cup, the dollar doesn’t jingle.