By Mike Faust
Jagged hair framed the haggard face of a 30-year-old woman. She wore no cosmetics. Her bulky pants matched her XXL gray sweatshirt. I stopped to take a second look. In front of her she held a cardboard sign with four words scrawled on it: “Will work for food.”
As I hurried into McDonald’s for lunch, my heart pounded as if I had just witnessed a car wreck. Who can think of food at a time like this?
I spoke in chopped sentences: “There’s a woman . . . and a sign . . . she’s in trouble.” Who would do this? Who could overcome personal shame enough to stand out there on public display?
The assistant manager nodded, politely informing me that the owner had already ventured out and offered her a job—which she had flatly refused. She was making far more money with her sign.
In that moment, I became both older and wiser.
A man in a torn overcoat stood shivering in blinding snow by the grocery store. Who would fake this? His sign said, “Stranded—anything will help.” I bought him some hot soup and a roll from the deli. He seemed thankful but asked for money; I didn’t have any cash. Later as I left the store, I noticed the soup and bread abandoned, untouched. He had moved on.
Now I felt irritable.
Juggling Compassion and Suspicion
Nearly a decade has passed, and I continue to struggle with walking or driving by people holding cardboard signs. Jesus’ Good Samaritan story pins me with guilt if I do nothing; on the other hand, what about the sting of feeling scammed? Giving money without seeking accountability didn’t seem like a good use of the resources entrusted to me. I wondered, how does one juggle compassion and suspicion?
Eventually I came to know a woman who had lived a transient lifestyle. She had fled an abusive home, hitchhiking around the country and exchanging sexual favors with truckers for a ride and a good night’s sleep. Finally, HIV-positive and weary from life on the road, she settled in our city for a while.
Immediately she sought help from local agencies and area churches. From the first time I met her, she emanated a spirit of entitlement: The world owes me. Agitated, bitter, and well versed in playing the victim’s role, she recoiled when anyone challenged her to take responsibility for her life. Escaping to her “road life” was a constant temptation for her. Yet, with time and persistence, we built a real relationship, which gave me an inside view of a world I knew nothing about.
She explained that most of those sign-holding people are, in fact, scamming. Many are able to work but don’t want to. If they are disabled they can get benefits, so the money they get from the benevolence of good people is mainly used for substance abuse. Giving food is OK because it’s possible some transients haven’t eaten for a few days. “However,” she instructed, “never give money. Never.”
Giving money to sign-holders is really about us. It’s a convenient way to assuage guilt, pay our penance, and move on, avoiding the inherent complexities of relationship. Even offering work to someone involves relationship and can lead to danger. How much more exposed would we be to offer a ride or a place to stay? So we roll down the window, hand someone a dollar, and go our way. The sign-holders seem to know this and work the angle.
Today the art of sign-holding has reached a pinnacle of exploitation. It’s almost to the point where they don’t even put “Will work for food” on their signs anymore—just “Gimme, because I am a pitiful person.” When you see someone in the worst weather, or using children, or wearing torn and battered clothes, as my friend explained, it just means the money will come in faster. In earlier days, she had parked in rest areas along highways with her ex-husband and a sign that said, “Car broken down—stranded—can you help?” In an hour, they hustled $300.
The Poverty Within
After she told me this, when passing people with signs I had a strong urge to yell, “Get a job!” But homelessness is a complicated issue. Talmadge Wright, a sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago, said, “When you are desperate and poor, you will do anything to survive and prosper. Somehow we seem to hold a moral standard that says as long as you don’t scam and oppress others you are OK, but if you con others you are not OK. The point is . . . any poor population will have both tendencies happening at the same time. If you don’t like it, make it so they are not poor.”
But is their poverty simply a matter of lacking food, clothing, and shelter?
One day a formerly homeless man was interviewed on television. He said there are places in New York City where he could get a hot meal, a shower with fresh clothes, and a bed for the night. All this, and more, were readily available. But he didn’t know how to escape the cycle of poverty, homelessness, and dependency because the real poverty was within him.
Mother Teresa said, “People are hungry for love, they are naked of human dignity and respect. They are homeless because of rejection.” This is what true poverty is about.
We live in a time where cynics say we must choose to scam or be scammed. While this is an oversimplification, it is true that good people become cynical in an environment of scammers. “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). How does one apply the compassion of the Good Samaritan in today’s world?
The apostle John said, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, New American Standard Bible).
Notice he did not say to “give him stuff.” The giving-him-stuff part requires discernment in each situation. The main point is not to close one’s heart. At the very least, we can pause and pray for someone caught in the web of poverty, homelessness, and dependency.
A couple of years ago, the church where I serve embraced a homeless man living in his van. I believe the relationships we offered were a pivotal part of him leaving the transient lifestyle. The very best we have to give is relationship, even if it is just for a time.
Closer to God
Early one sunny morning as I was walking, I came upon a man in a heavy brown overcoat, sitting on the curb. For just a moment I hesitated, disrupting my synchronized stride. I considered crossing the street. Yet a still, small voice in my head urged me to continue walking toward him.
As I came closer, I could see a frayed coat collar, unshaven face, and greasy hair. I extended my hand to his (without even thinking about soap), looked right into his eyes, and spoke with him for a few moments. His face plainly displayed an expression of surprise. His jaw dropped slightly. I wondered if he felt invisible most of the time on our busy streets. I fumbled around for words to say as the conversation proceeded in slow motion.
Had he eaten lately? No.
Would he like some food from a nearby McDonald’s? Yes. I walked to the golden arches, purchased him a meal, and walked back to him.
As I left, I realized something within me had changed. In that moment, I understood that love requires getting mixed up with people. Even God did not want to be alone in Heaven. He became a man and entered the human fray. He wanted to get mixed up with us.
For the first time in my life I realized human beings are the fireworks in a dark universe. To be in the presence of even the meanest, lowest, most repulsive specimen of humanity is still to be closer to God than when looking up into a starry sky or a beautiful sunset.
We must see what God sees and not let our hearts grow cold.
Mike Faust is minister with senior adults at Tates Creek Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.