New Year, Some Old Problems

It was clear with the commercials for payday loans, video games, and “the only way to tell her you love her”…jewelry of course.  It was also clear during midnight mass, with the less-than-cheery gentleman sitting and scowling next to us.  The holiday season is also clearly in effect as homeless men and women flood the vacant street corners with sometimes curious, sometimes suspicious signs.

Phoenix is an anomaly because of its climate.  A warm summer prevents homeless residents from panhandling during the day…it’s just too hot, and every year people literally die from the 115 degree highs.  But during the holiday season homelessness is more evident, though the legitimacy of those in need is not always clear.

If you think about it, the homeless community is just marketing to the season, much like department stores do.  During the holidays people are more likely to help the less fortunate…right?  Most major religions teach the value of charity, and during the end of the year people are feeling overly compassionate (or guilty) leading to more giving (and tax write-offs.)  I’ll not discuss how beneficial year-round charity would be…that would complicate things.

A story a while back from Utah really tainted my views of those folks on the freeway off-ramps.  The supposed veterans, stranded, homeless, downtrodden, all seem to genuinely need help, but there are always the fake downtrodden mixed in with the rest.

This panhandler in Salt Lake City worked a route of off-ramps making a decent wage.  She had the sign, the clothes, the sad look, the well-timed eye contact with drivers.  The only problem was she wasn’t stranded, nor homeless, nor in need.  But she continued to make bank, and fund her teenage shopping trips.

A gotcha TV reporter confronted the girl with her behavior, and confronted the drivers who gave a few bucks.  The drivers looked betrayed, the girl seemed indifferent.

Who knows how many homeless folks are truly in need?  I’m not a proponent of panhandling, but faking misfortune seems like a new level of corruption to me.  Motivations are varied.  Perhaps someone just needs a few extra bucks for an X-box game.  Perhaps money for clothes.  Perhaps for pills or heroin or weed.  Perhaps booze.  The common denominator in these faux misfortunate folks is they’re motivated by material and external pleasures–rarely if ever are these industrious folks panhandling for others.

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Tis the season..

When I first moved to the Phoenix area, I began constructing backpacks.  In each backpack, I would stuff canned fruit, snacks, drinks, survival tools like matches and a crank flashlight, a bible, and information about the largest homeless shelter in the area.  I keep the packs in my trunk, and when I remember, in my backseat.  I only give the packs to people I’ve seen before, and who seem to be legitimately in need.

But with stories like that of the girl in SLC, there’s no sure way to guarantee a legitimate homeless person.  That story has seeded in me a skepticism in my charity.  I looked the panhandlers up and down.  “His shoes are nice for a homeless man…that’s weird.” “He’s well groomed and fed for a homeless man…that’s weird.”

I don’t like that I’m so critical of people who could be in dire need, but the scammers are ever present.  The Holy Bible doesn’t distinguish between true and false beggars.  Jesus said only if someone asks for help, give it.  This is where an unfortunate conflict with charity arises.  Jesus also warned not to throw pearls to swine–don’t give wisdom to those who can’t or won’t recognize its intrinsic and everlasting worth.  But perhaps my backpacks, or your canned food, or used clothes could be seen as pearls.  And in our diligence to prevent waste, we don’t want those good intentions to fall in the hands of false needy persons.

But this problem assumes we’re predisposed to give in the first place.  Humans are compassionate creatures, and we work to protect the less fortunate or vulnerable.  We rush to save whales stranded on beaches.  We hurry to protect endangered squirrels and snails before new housing developments go up.  But so many people in this world–flesh and blood people–are starving and struggling and crying and dying.

I will continue to give out my backpacks, and donate my time and resources to helping less fortunate where I can.  I can’t prevent scammers, but that’s not really what my faith calls me to do.  I’m not taught to be skeptical and selective with my charity, just to be open and willing when life requires my action.  And in that faith, I pray my assistance finds its way to those who need it most.

I suppose an important thing to recognize in charity is its immediacy.  What better moment for bettering the world than now?  If we were to be judged on our lives up to this point, can we stand confidently before our Judge and claim excellence?  In my opinion, everyone’s truthful answer should be “No, but I tried my best.”

“At the end of things, The Blessed will say, “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.” And the lost will say, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”  -C.S. Lewis

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