Giving to Panhandlers

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Some Friends went to Lunch, and one of the women asked how people handle panhandlers. I told her my story, and she said I should write it up.

Before Jesus

I didn't used to give to panhandlers. I'm not sure why exactly. Perhaps it was because I felt I'd been conned by some people before, and I felt ashamed of that. But I would rarely give money. Mainly I would give money to people selling Street Sense, or street musicians playing music I liked.

I was really concerned about homelessness, though. I have this vivid memory from childhood, where we went up to see my cousins who lived outside New York city. We went into the city, and we were walking down the street when I saw an old guy dressed in rags sleeping against the side of the building. At that age, I could not understand what I was seeing. I just could not grasp what was going on there, and it confused me for years. One of my few points of connection with my step-father was his work on fair housing. In high school he had a bumper sticker: "Houses: Everybody gets one before anybody gets two." I loved that bumper sticker. So I gave to homeless charities like Street Sense and the incredible D.C. Central Kitchen.


At one point, I decided to give the Bible another shot. I'd had a crisis of faith reading the Old Testament, but I'd been brought back into the belief in God by Buddhism (go figure). So I was trying to find a framework in which to handle my belief in God, because Buddhism doesn't really have much to say about God. So I was reading the Gospels simultaneously. There's various places that present all four Gospels side by side, so it's really easy to see how they tell the same story differently, and where there are parts that aren't in some of the Gospels.

The only thing that it really convinced me of was that I don't believe in the Bible. I mean, Jesus has some really good stuff to say. But he says some stuff that I just cannot agree with. As the child of a wife beater, I have a really hard time with adultery being the only valid reason for divorce.

But like I said, I think Jesus has some good stuff to say. The one that struck me the most was Matthew 5:42: "Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." (American Standard)

After Jesus

I decided to give Matthew 5:42 a try. I started giving to every panhandler no matter how aggressive or well dressed. I gave to every street musician, even the guy with no teeth at the Metro station who just mumble sings. I gave to every tip jar, even for take out they just hand to me. I even gave money to obvious con men, who ran out of gas and needed to pick up their sick child at school. At 9 in the evening. I would even give it with a little smile, to let them know that I knew.

I use cash for eating out and going to the movies. I have a budget for that and take a certain amount out every week. I started saving all of my $1 bills. These are what would use for that giving. It generally held up to the amount of requests I ran into, but sometimes I would cash a $20 bill for more ones. At Christmas I would also get gift cards at the grocery stores. In Montgomery County grocery stores can't sell booze, so it's only good for food. After moving to Silver Spring I stopped that though, because it's so close to D.C. and I don't know what the laws are there.

I did not give to the people begging in traffic at intersections. I'm on a motorcycle. I can't just toss my wallet in the passenger seat if the light turns green. It's just too dangerous to be messing with those people.

It felt good. I liked being able to look people in the face. To not walk by them like they weren't there. It wasn't all good. It felt bad when I ran into the people selling Street Sense. They were trying to work for their dollars, trying to get out of that life; and I was giving to people who were wallowing in it. I ended up frequently buying multiple copies of the same issue of Street Sense.

My mom seemed a bit disturbed by it. I tried to explain to her that it was like the difference between tough love and unconditional love. There are people who won't give to panhandlers because giving to charitable organizations is a better way to get the homeless out of poverty. Those people are practicing tough love, doing what they think is best rather than what the person wants. I was trying to practice unconditional love, by giving to them no matter what they were going to do with the money. It's only now that I write that down that I realize how disturbing it is that I equate money with love, given all the money games my father used to play with me and my siblings.

Subway Stations

While I was doing this I was giving to standard charities as well. One thing I hate though is the junk mail you get when you give to charities. Talk about aggressive panhandlers. The one that killed me was when I gave 500 dollars to a charity, the one that gives people farm animals to provide an income. I got a letter back from them the next week. I opened it with a small smile, figuring it would be a nice thank you card. It was a request for another 500 dollars.

So I stopped giving money to charities that sent me junk mail. This meant that I was quickly running out of charities to give money to. I was trying to figure out what to do with the money, and lamenting how much money was being wasted by the charities when it should be going to people in need. Then I thought, "Why not give it straight to the people, and cut out the middle man?"

At the time I was taking the Metro home from work, from Bethesda to Shady Grove. I figured the people at Shady Grove needed the money more than the people at Bethesda. So one I Friday I showed up with $500 in cash, handed a bill to a person coming out of the Metro station, and said "Happy Friday." I got a lot of reactions, from effusive thanks to "Don't look at the crazy person." Some people would even give the money back after some consideration, saying "Give it someone else, I don't need the money." Of course, others would try to come back and get a second bill. One guy got irritated with me. "Why don't you give it to the church?" "I do," I said, glossing over the fact that I was actually giving to a zendo and a Quaker meeting rather than a church. The typical conversation would go like this:

Me: Happy Friday.
Subway Rider: What's this?
Me: Ten dollars.
Subway Rider: You're just giving me ten dollars?
Me: Yes.
Subway Rider: Why?
Me: So you can have a happy Friday.
Subway Rider: Uh, okay. Thanks.

There was this guy Ron who played the guitar at Shady Grove back then (maybe even now). He thought it was hillarious. He also thought I was insane. Of course, he'd also seen me stand in from of the Jews for Jesus, passively interfering with them handing out pamphlets.

The next year I did 750 dollars. After that, every year in the spring I would take 1,000 dollars in tens to the Metro station and give it away. I called it Happy Friday.

When I moved to Silver Spring it seemed like I was living and working in two rather rich neighborhoods. But I had recently seen an article in the Washington Post about the richest and poorest Metro lines. They had taken the median salary in a 1.5 mile radius around each Metro station, and averaged the stations for each line. So I dug up the data for the individual stations, and found that Congress Heights was the poorest Metro station in the system.

The first time I went there was great. The people were very appreciative and nice, although some still tried to get seconds. Some were pretty brazen about it, needing a second one for their sister who was in a wheelchair and couldn't make it over to the station. The second time I went there was bad. There were a lot of people conning me, getting seconds and even thirds. I couldn't keep track of them all. I left totally dejected. Couldn't they understand that they weren't conning me? I was going to give the money away anyway. They were only conning their neighbors.

After the Subway

Since then, I've stopped giving money to panhandlers. I still give to the street musicians, even if I don't really like their music. It seems hard enough for musicians to make a living these days, with everyone wanting free songs from YouTube. I still put at least a dollar in every tip jar, even for Chinese take out. I still give to D.C. Central Kitchen. But I don't give to people who ask for spare change, or money for the bus, or have a cardboard sign. Especially not that woman who's spent the last three years raising money for her daughter's operation.

It doesn't feel good. A lot of these guys came to recognize me. Now I walk by them without giving them the usual dollar. It doesn't feel good, but that last trip to Congress Heights didn't feel good either. I keep trying to think of a way to get to a place that feels good, but I can't find that place. I wonder if it even exists.