Servants or Suckers?

When Naomi Harnett was in Nepal, she knew already that it was a poor policy to give money to people begging on the street.

“In developing countries, you're told not to give money to beggars,” Harnett says. “It’s even printed on your visa. The reason is that it enables the government to overlook their responsibilities to the poor.”

Still, when faced with street children who were hungry and destitute, Harnett felt she had to act.

“There was a group of children that would congregate daily on the main road in Thamel [in Kathmandu] and wait outside shops, asking for money and food,” she says. “They were all using solvents.” Many children in developing countries, she explains, inhale solvents because it takes the edge off their hunger pains and makes them feel warm. “A kid told me he was hungry, so I bought him food and a drink. He ate his lunch, then drank a portion of the drink, put the lid back on, got money for it from a shop and ran off. Later I saw him sniffing glue.”

It’s not a problem unique to developing countries. Many of us have been faced with the choice of whether or not to give money to the homeless. A man or woman approaches you on the street, asks for financial help, and regardless of all you’ve heard about giving handouts and enabling people, it’s difficult to turn away someone in need.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, between 700,000 to 2 million Americans are without shelter on any given night. Of this number, upwards of 66 percent have problems with alcohol or drug abuse. So, giving money to people may merely be enabling self-destructive patterns. We are told there are programs in place to help the homeless. But, if this is true, why do many homeless Americans seem to go without the help they need?

Harnett, who is also a social worker and runs a food bank, believes the answer lies in the lack of sustainable methods for helping the homeless to change their long-term social standing rather than just their short-term physical needs.

“The biggest thing keeping the homeless from getting help is a lack of substantial structural support from government agencies,” she says. “There’s no formal structure to assist people to get into a better position. There are food grants and small subsidies, but there's nothing to assist people to get into a better place socially. That's why it comes down to NGO's, and they typically don't have the resources to sustain the demand for service.”

Harnett has found this frustration in her outreach to the impoverished. Because the food bank she runs is a volunteer agency, and is supported by donations, it typically lacks the staff and resources to provide people with the lifestyle change that will help them long-term.

“Because we're a community agency, we don't have enough money, staff or resources to assist people as aggressively as we need to,” Harnett says. “We're putting a band-aid on the problem without really changing it fundamentally.”

With a lack of community-based resources to supply their needs, and a lack of government  assistance to change people’s situation, should we be willing to give people immediate help when they ask for it? It’s a sticky question, Harnett says.

“You may be enabling them to cause harm to themselves,” she says. But, at the same time, the assumption that immediate assistance will be used irresponsibly is not always fair. “It's complex, because you're making judgments about people that may not necessarily be true,” Harnett says. “The right thing to do in the long term may not be the right thing to do in the short term.”

In some instances, immediate assistance may be the best way to help. “In some way, they may be getting their needs met,” Harnett says. “Everybody has a basic human right to food and water and shelter. At least you're meeting one of their basic human rights and needs.”

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But, to truly care for the homeless, Harnett believes we need a more proactive approach. It isn’t enough to simply shell out a few dollars from our wallet and hope for the best. Harnett believes that justice for the homeless requires greater action on our part.

“I think lobbying government to provide significant social supports for people, as well as volunteering at under-resourced community service agencies are the best ways to help the homeless,” she says.

This being said, Harnett doesn’t believe we should turn away everyone who asks for immediate assistance, but should try to assess each situation individually. “I don't think there's a blanket rule for anybody when it comes to that sort of thing,” she says. “If somebody asked for a drink of water, you wouldn't say, 'No. You need to ask the government to provide it for you.' You'd give them the water. But there's a perceived moral component when it comes to financial stuff, because people see money as something that's more morally loaded than any other resource people would ask for.”

So, are we truly serving the homeless when they ask for money, or are we enabling them? The answer comes down to a case-by-case basis. Immediate assistance is not always to be shunned. But true care for the impoverished requires more than our money.


Bart Wang


Bart Wang commented…

Skippyboy, thanks for referencing that passage in Proverbs 31. Even though Combat Chuck disagrees, I would encourage him to read further on in that chapter. The noble wife? "She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls... She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy." (v.15, 20) Even better, Matthew 25. Jesus doesn't reference the ability of the "sheep" to ascertain the plans and motives of the poor, only that they gave. If it were my job to guess plans, I'd say you waste a whole lot of money in a day that you could afford to give away. Hey! So do I.

I would suggest that giving information about community services is akin to sending people away with your best wishes. "I am not going to help you but here are the names of some people who will." I seem to recall a passage of Scripture that suggests that is insufficient but I forget the reference right now. Anyhow, I would suggest that unless and until we are perfect stewards of our many resources, we should not be judging others on what they do with their few resources. After all, if you lived in a box and were ignored or despised in society, you might want to get drunk too.

I recommend listening to Lazyboy's "Underwear Goes Inside The Pants" tune for a humourous take on it.

"We're in one of the richest countries in the world but the minimum wage is lower than it was thirty five years ago. There are homeless people everywhere. This homeless guy asked me for money the other day. I was about to give it to him and then I thought he was going to use it on drugs or alcohol. And then I thought, that's what I'm going to use it on.
Why am I judging this poor bastard?

People love to judge homeless guys. Like if you give them money they're just going to waste it. Well, he lives in a box, what do you want him to do? Save it up and buy a wall unit? Take a little run to the store for a throw rug and a CD rack? He's homeless.

I walked behind this guy the other day. A homeless guy asked him for money. He looks right at the homeless guy and says, "Why don't you go get a job, you bum?" People always say that to homeless guys like it is so easy. This homeless guy was wearing his underwear outside his pants.
Outside his pants. I'm guessing his resume isn't all up to date. I'm predicting some problems during the interview process. I'm pretty sure even McDonalds has a "underwear goes inside the pants" policy. Not that they enforce it really strictly, but technically I'm sure it is on the books."



Eric commented…

This reminds me of a story that happened to me a few months ago. I was living in a city that had a high vagrant population and was at a gas station. Two men were clearly drunk and were buying more alcohol while I stood in line. I felt God nudge me and tell me I was supposed to interact with them. I introduced myself to the to men and just started talking. It was not long before they asked for food, so I bought them some gas station food. While they were eating and taking sips of really cheap vodka, they asked for some money. I said no. They responded by telling me they needed a place to stay (and it was quite cold that night). Feeling like God was still prodding me, I made a deal with them. I told them I would buy them a hotel room in exchange for their vodka. So they got in my car and I drove them to a roadside motel. (I tried an actual hotel but they turned us away, they were not thrilled about two homeless drunk tenants for the night). I felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing, but God kept telling me that I was doing the right thing. So the next time I went in to the office by myself and put a room on my credit card, all the while praying that God would keep them from destroying the room and me having to pay whatever the cost could have been. God said, "trust me." So I handed the lady my credit card and she gave me the keys. I gave the guys one key and kept one.

I asked the guys to promise me that they would stay in for the night and sleep off the alcohol. They agreed, and asked for me to pray with them. So I prayed for them before I left them for the night. The whole time I was thinking that I was getting taken advantage of, yet God kept saying, "maybe you are getting taken advantage of me, but will you still obey me?"

The next morning I got up early and went by the hotel to check on them and to check them out of the room. "Lord, don't let there be anything be destroyed, I really cant afford that." I prayed the whole way over. I slipped in the key and opened the door. Inside the two men's bodies lay contorted in drunken heaps. Beer cans littered the floor. But nothing was broken. "Love them." God said. So I started cleaning up and talking to them. "You guys have fun last night?" They stumbled around to wake up, still very drunk. They then sputtered out excuses and crazy stories about how it wasn't their fault for the drinking.

"Can you get us some breakfast?" One of them asked. I paused and prayed, already feeling taken advantage of. "Love them." God said. So I took them to Jack in the Box and bought them whatever they wanted. I grimmaced a bit at the bill for taking care of these guys was growing, and I did not have a job at the time myself. I sat with them and ate breakfast and we continued to talk. Then they asked why I was doing it. "Because you are loved, you are worth all of this." was about all I could respond. But they seemed to be having a lot of fun at my expense and not really interested in my philosophies.

Later, a bus drove by. As it passed they pleaded that they needed a bus ticket to get to somewhere important. "Are you kidding me." I thought to myself. "I am just getting taken advantage of." But God kept telling me to help them. So I went and bought them two bus tickets and handed them to the men. At this, one of them paused with tears in his eyes. "Really man, why are you doing this. No one has ever done this for me before." I could tell all of a sudden something clicked in him. "Will you pray with me? I don't want to live like this anymore." The man said. "Of course." I explained that Jesus wanted him to be free of alcohol and all the pain in his life, and prayed with him outside of the Jack in the box. Then we hugged and he got on the bus.

I never saw him again, and I have no idea if his life is actually any better or not.

So, the thing I kept fighting the whole time. I was flat out getting taken advantage of. That kind of giving hurt. I barely had enough money myself. When I asked God, He said,"So what if you are. Does it matter if you were getting taken advantage of? Will you still do it?"



Anna commented…

I usually haven't given money to people on the street, but I feel guilty that I don't. I've recently discovered that it regenerates my spirit immensely to even just give a little. Like Jesus says, give to the one who asks, right? I can't justify not giving. If it's our own finances we're worried about, Jesus said to not worry about stuff. I believe that we follow Jesus the best we can and God will provide for our truest needs.

Ted Dade


Ted Dade commented…

I spent a couple nights sleeping on the street while travelling Europe. NEVER again will the thought "oh what if he uses it on booze" go through my head. It angers me that that thought was ever an excuse for me. It gets cold, it gets wet, it gets lonely. If a homeless guy wants to buy a 40 to get through the day, fine.



Christina commented…

I actually try to keep McDonald's gift certificates or gift cards to similar food chains in small denominations in my car or purse for these types of situations. You get to actively do something for them and still know where that person will spend your money this way. Most are very appreciative of it when I give them out. Occasionally, one will turn up their nose or something. I have wrestled with this issue of giving or not giving, and came to the conclusion that we, or at least I, am called to do something. This has been a great solution!

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