New Year, Some Old Problems

The festive holiday season had clearly arrived, along with the commercials for payday loans or video games, there were more homeless men and women seeming to flood vacant street corners with sometimes curious 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 knows that the holidays are a time when they might get more of the help they need.  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.)  If we were to discuss how beneficial year-round charity would be, both for the people in need and the souls of those giving, it might complicate this post too much.

False beggars and homeless scammers

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

The story details a panhandler in Salt Lake City working a route of off-ramps making a decent wage.  She had the sign, shabby clothes, a sad look, well-timed eye contact with drivers. The only problem was she wasn’t stranded, nor homeless, nor in need

But she continued to make a lot of money, and funded 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–directing these people to established aid programs and resources seems more sustainable and productive–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, for clothes, 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.

Tis the season..

Helping in a small way

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 seeded a skepticism in my charity.  “His shoes are nice for a homeless man…that’s weird.” “He’s well groomed and fed for a homeless man…that’s weird.” This assumes there’s a stereotypical person who is homeless and needs help, and my snapshot of their appearance could somehow decode their struggle. Someone may fall into homelessness for many reasons, and look many ways.

That skepticism is toxic.

I don’t like being so critical of people who could be in dire need, but 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. 

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. 

A call to charity

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.

Our responsibility is toward good and righteous acts, and we can only control ourselves.

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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