Last year I had a panhandling epiphany. Until then, I was one of those people who actively avoided panhandlers. Not only that, but I disparaged my friends who gave them money. Suckers!
Over years of studious practice I had honed my avoidance techniques. I escaped eye contact whenever possible. (Like a toddler, I had the magical belief that if I didn’t see them, maybe they wouldn’t see me.) I skirted people sprawled on the sidewalk and staked out by the doorways of busy stores and theaters. If I was at an intersection, I would actually switch lanes to reduce the chance of a personal encounter.
One step removed from the beggars were the folks selling bottled water (think: the I-83 exit ramp at North Avenue) and the squeegee kids who descend on your car at red lights. I didn’t know how to deal with them either, but at least (in my mind), they weren’t just asking for a handout.
I didn’t think of myself as particularly ungenerous or mean spirited. In fact, every year at Christmas I conscientiously make out my checks to various charities, and (even though the amounts are meager) I see myself as a philanthropic person. Even though I felt vaguely uncomfortable with my choices, I didn’t see any contradiction.
On the contrary, I worked up a righteous indignation to assuage my discomfort. I justified my hostility with the sanctimonious thought that they were using the money for drugs or drink, and why should I enable that? In the privacy of my own thoughts, I would say: These people are encroaching on my space. They’re detracting from my good time. They’re bringing me down!
I have always been a civic-minded, liberal do-gooder, so this animosity that I felt toward people asking for money, who happened to be on the street instead of sitting behind a computer in a comfortable office, left me feeling confused and conflicted. I knew on some level there was a cognitive dissonance, but if I thought too much about it I felt ashamed, and we humans try to avoid unpleasant feelings at any cost (or perhaps at a great cost).
So it was serendipitous when the chavurah I belong to decided to have a program about panhandling. For those who aren’t familiar, a chavurah is a small Jewish fellowship group that assembles to share communal experiences, usually without the benefit of a rabbi or a permanent location. Our group meets twice a month at different members’ homes, we eat (mandatory), and usually have a program or speaker.
That day changed my thinking permanently. One of our members gave an introduction about the Jewish perspective on charity. Then an experienced social worker talked about her homeless clients, almost all of whom suffer from mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction. Virtually without exception, she said, these are the panhandlers we see on the street. (We didn’t talk about the squeegee kids that day, and I think most of them probably fall into a fourth category: lack of opportunity — the state of being young, poor and black in Baltimore City.)
In the social worker’s opinion, if someone is on the street asking for money, it’s because they need it. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a cup of coffee or a fix — they need it, and they don’t have any other way to get it, no judgment necessary. So if you have it, and you can spare it, you should give it.
It was as if a light bulb exploded in my head. Was it that simple? Is giving a dollar to a street person really any different than writing a check to organized philanthropy? Ultimately, I realized, it’s just a matter of scale.
So now I always keep a few dollar bills in my glove compartment. I make eye contact when I see someone in need on the street. I try to exchange a few meaningful words or pleasantries. Some folks I know carry water, or candy bars, or even sandwiches, in lieu of money.
I almost always get an appreciative response that is way out of proportion to the dollar I give. Last weekend I passed the squeegee kids on my way to the Charles Theater. I didn’t want my windshield cleaned, so I waved off the kid on my side with a dollar in my hand and the admonition to stay safe (the Jewish mother in me is never far away). As the one on the passenger side walked down the narrow lane between the cars, he reached out his squeegee and traced a heart on my windshield.
That same weekend, outside H-Mart in Catonsville, an elderly guy with terribly swollen legs sat on the sidewalk with his belongings scattered around him, shoppers racing by left and right. As I dug in my purse for a dollar, searching for the right thing to say to this person I considered so unfortunate, all I could come up with was, “I hope you have a better day.” He suddenly looked right at me with a gleam in his eye, waved at the blue sky overhead, and said, “What could be better than today? At least I’m on this side of the sidewalk!”
All people want to be seen. I’ve learned that it’s much less about the dollar I give, and more about acknowledging our shared humanity. When I see the stranger, they also see me.
Ruth Goldstein is a freelance writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah can be found at baltimoresecularjews.com.