Alms for the Poor?

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Luke 9:58

Homelessness in New Orleans is impossible to ignore, and I think that’s a good thing.

Many local organizations work tirelessly to combat homelessness in our city, and it’s working! According to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, homelessness has decreased 85% to a little over 1,700 people today down from 2007’s post-Katrina high of 11,600. There are some really cool plans to eliminate many forms of homelessness by 2020. However, homelessness per capita is still higher in New Orleans than other cities, and homelessness seems very visible today due to a large number of panhandlers asking for money on street corners.

It was not surprising that at our church’s young adult group last Monday the issue of how to respond to those who panhandle on the street came up, as it has many times before.

It’s not like we are flying blind on this question. Jesus has a lot to say about responding to the poor in both his words and his example. Jesus was literally homeless during most of his three years in ministry. He traveled from place to place preaching and teaching and relying on strangers and friends alike for donations, meals, and places to sleep. Jesus also spent a significant portion of his ministry serving the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. There are many verses in the Bible where Jesus tells his followers directly to be generous to the poor. Here are just a few:

  • “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Matthew 5:42
  • “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” Luke 6:30
  • “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” Luke 12:33a
  • “‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,…as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:35-40

To be fair, these verses are plucked from the larger context in which they were spoken. (The first two verses can be found in the “Love Your Enemies”-titled section of those gospels.) Nevertheless, Christians are clearly called to respond to the needs of the poor. So I think the underlying question when homelessness comes up at our church group is really: If we ignore panhandlers, are we ignoring Jesus?

Yes and no.

Yes, we’re ignoring Jesus if we don’t recognize the needs of the poor. Less than a year ago, a Bloomberg article explained that the wealth gap in New Orleans between rich and poor is the largest in the nation. Panhandlers serve as a visible reminder of the need that exists in our community. The tug on our heartstrings when we see someone begging forces us out of our bubble. It forces us to not be ignorant of the great need that exists in our community. Everyone has a role to play.

On the other hand, I don’t think we’re ignoring Jesus if we don’t give money to individual people who are panhandling on the street. Jesus had an amazing ability to know exactly what someone needed and to fill that need. Some needed truth, some needed grace. Some needed healing, some needed humbling. I don’t feel like I am the best equipped to know how to help those I encounter. What if I’m enabling substance abuse by giving money? What if my gift discourages someone from taking steps to change their homeless status for good? Thankfully, there are many organizations in New Orleans with the resources and experience to provide sustainable solutions, individualized services, and long-term housing. If you don’t belong to a formal organization or a church that dedicates resources to homelessness, find one! For those in New Orleans, UNITY has compiled a directory of organizations that you can volunteer with or donate to.

I’m thankful that my church provides me many opportunities to serve the poor in our community through my tithe and my time. It was through my church that I learned about Crescent City Café, where I have been volunteering monthly for the last several years. One of the Café’s missions is to help cast a new vision of homelessness not as a permanent state. Their homelessness is not who they are, it is just where they are right now. My experiences volunteering at the Café have helped me see those who are homeless as people first, increasing my understanding of the complexities of homelessness and expanding my compassion toward those experiencing it.

“Working with an organization is great,” you may be thinking, “but I’m still going to see a person on the street corner tomorrow – how do I respond?” I’m not going to lie. I often feel uncertain in that situation, too. I am tempted to avoid eye contact. I feel awkward about my approach when I do have a granola bar or shelter voucher to offer. If I have nothing to give, I self-consciously wave or flash a peace sign. But again, I think my discomfort is a good thing. I think it should make me uncomfortable that I have so much and others have so little.

So, for now, my goal is not to get to a point where I feel comfortable in interactions with people on the street corner. My goal is to let the heart tug challenge me to be mindful of the poor, to give my time and my gifts to organizations for the homeless, and to gradually increase my giving as my wealth increases.

What about you? Responding to panhandling is a complex issue with some deeply personal choices. What do you do when you see a homeless person on the corner with a sign or a cup, asking for money, food, or work? How do you respond to the overall needs of the poor in your community? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. And thanks for reading!

Go, Girl!

Throwing Stones