This is my first Christmas in ten years not being employed by Jacob’s Well, a small non-profit in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC. In more ways than I can explain, Jacob’s Well shaped who I am today. It was a challenging and formative time, forcing me to face my fears, judgements and God’s call to serve the marginalized. You can read the top ten things I learned during my time there here. In all the teaching I did with my co-workers, there was one question that we were asked the most. Can you guess what it was?
“What should I do if someone on the street asks me for money?”
I wondered the same thing for years too. And even while working there I asked myself a myriad of questions along the same lines:
I’ve been told by people who ask for money not to give it out because it gets used for the wrong reasons. Why do I do now when asked?
What should I do when I know you can eat for free more than five times a day in my neighborhood?
What should I do when I have money in my pocket and don’t want to lie but don’t want to give cash?
What should I do when I want to be a good influence (or maybe look good?) to my kids or friends?
Like I said before, I learned a lot of things during my time at Jacob’s Well, but what to do when someone on the street asks me for money is something that stands out.
The answer: do whatever you want.
Not that helpful? Ok, I’ll expand. You must listen to your gut (or we would say the Holy Spirit). You must be open to listening though! I do not say this flippantly. It is easy to just think we know what to do because we have made a firm commitment: “I will always give a dollar” or “I will never give money.” We must tune our ears and our hearts to that particular person at that particular moment. You have have a different response at different times. If you gave money every time or never gave money, it is ok if you are doing it for the right reasons. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
The most important thing is not to ignore someone who asks for money. I am not saying you have to give them money (that is up to you, remember). But I can ask you not to ignore someone. Give them a smile, a hello, a polite head nod or a whole conversation but people deserve to not be ignored.
If not to someone on the street, give somewhere. God calls us to love, to fight for justice and to be generous (and a whole lot more). God cares deeply for the poor and marginalized. It doesn’t take much Bible reading to figure that out. If you don’t feel called to give to someone on the street then please do a little research and give somewhere. If you want ideas email me (I’m serious).
Remember we don’t know everything. We must remember that we (probably) do not know the story of the person asking for money. Chances are their journey is one that is complicated and harder than our own. People do not just wake up and think “I’m going to quit my job, be homeless and start panhandling on the street.” They have walked a long road and we must remember that we are all created in God’s image.
Don’t make assumptions. Please don’t assume the person you are talking to wants to talk to you. Imagine if you spent the night sleeping on the sidewalk, then had your shoes stolen, were hungry, cold, tired etc. Would you want to talk to a stranger? Probably not. It is ok to ask if they want to talk but don’t assume ‘you deserve’ their attention.
Have some respect. Lastly, if you do decide to give someone something instead of food please please, please, be kind and courteous. Would you want someone’s leftovers or dirty socks? Don’t assume that someone on the street does either. People are people, whether you have an address or not.
What do you do?