Being asked for small amounts of money by people on the street is a bit bewildering for me. I don’t think I am the only one who struggles with discerning a right response in these cases, but I’ll try to speak for myself here and not generalize.
Three recent episodes (recreated as precisely as I can recall) to explain where I’m coming from:
At a Chevron, while pumping gas:
Man, carrying gas can, walking toward me: Hey, I’m not going to ask you for money.
Me: Ok. Hi.
Man: I just need $5 to get some gas, we’re all out.
Me: No, sorry.
Man walks around, asking several people for gas, all obviously denying him. To me: Hey, I just need some gas, could you buy me some?
Me: No, sorry.
Man stands behind and uncomfortably close to me while I pump gas, looking around for other people to ask. He eventually finds someone to put some gas in his tank.
At a drive-in Dairy Queen:
Man: Hey, man how you doing tonight?
Man (closer): Hey, how you doing man?
Man, to DQ attendant: Yeah, let’s see, I’ll get (looks in wallet)…oh man, I thought I had a five (opening wallet wide so I can see he’s only got two ones)…oh that’s right, I spent it on a haircut. Hey man (to me), do you have a dollar?
Me: No, sorry.
Man: Alright (to attendant), I’ll be back in a while. What time do you close?
Me, playfully: Don’t come back at 9:03, they’ll be closed. I learned that the hard way. They take their schedules seriously.
Man: Oh, alright. Hey, can you buy me a hot dog? I’m homeless.
Me: No, sorry.
Man: Alright (walks off).
In Santa Cruz on Pacific Ave:
Man: Hey, do you have some spare change?
Me: No, sorry.
“No, sorry.” I don’t think I invented that line. I feel like it’s the polite way of saying “I do not intend (nor want) to give you money at this juncture.” Right? And people asking are intelligent; I would guess they know the euphemism. Though, I’ve never verified that with someone asking for money. I should. I will say that most people asking if I can give them money, when I say “no, sorry,” are very polite and don’t pester or challenge the veracity of my response.
There is so much involved in this; I'm not sure where to start. The topic on one hand provokes righteous anger and, on the other hand, guilt.
I’m doing some research on Dorothy Day and exploring her obsessive use of the “works of mercy”—a Catholic teaching based on Scripture (notably Matthew 25) that includes fourteen corporal (bodily) and spiritual practices that all have an element of social concern: feed the hungry, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, forgive all injuries, among others.
Day is very serious about the centrality of these practices—this is the heart of the Christian life for her. She at one point even says “our salvation is at stake” in the successful practice of these merciful acts. Whether she’s being literal, semi-literal or rhetorical, she persistently calls people to practice these works and practices them herself. She calls readers (of her Catholic Worker editorials) to practice them, at a personal cost. She calls readers to sacrifice. She calls readers to recognize the humanity of the poor, to dignify them, to recognize their personhood.
Joann and I tried to meet the needs of others with a short-lived “project” when we lived in Olympia. We didn’t like giving away money to people on the street for philosophical and practical reasons, but we wanted to offer something. So we bought a bunch of bottled water and bulk food and made “snack packs” to distribute when asked (mainly while in the car at intersections). But I think we (at least I) just became undisciplined and would forget to add new packs to the car and so our project faltered.
We also used to budget a small amount of money each month to have on hand, available to distribute in person to whomever and to be given away by the end of each month. This was a good practice for us. Though I guess both these practices got lost in the birth of Clara and subsequent move to California (as well our very different financial situation now that I'm a student again).
But so many thoughts race through my head in (and shortly after) these kinds of interactions.
One is “make sure you dignify the person. Don’t ignore him/her.” So even when I do not give out money but I drive past someone at an intersection or walk past someone sitting on the street, I make a point to smile and say hello. They are already ignored in so many ways. They make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it even feels silly to say hello, but I do it. They probably think I’m weird because of how overly friendly I am, at least in terms of saying hello. Though maybe when I subsequently deny them a donation they think I’m less friendly.
Another is, “I don’t have money to give.” I might literally have money in my wallet. I might not. The point is more an overall feeling of “I really, especially as a husband and father with dependents who is already taking out student loans, do not have the money to spare.” But even a dollar? I can afford to buy that new shirt, even though I have plenty of old shirts that still fit fine.
Another is, “Pressure, confrontation, ah!” It’s an awkward thing to be asked for money. Sometimes I wonder if maybe my response is really just an immediate reaction to the situation, as if “no, sorry” really means, “I don’t like this conversation, make it stop.”
Another is, “well, I give in other ways.” I don’t know how true that is. Maybe if you define “giving” broadly. I pay for friends’ lunches occasionally but I don’t give to charitable organizations. I give love, time, prayer, healthy meals, encouragement, and work hard now so I’ll be in a better place to financially give later. But…I don’t know. Seems like self-placation.
Another is, “this potential donation will bring about no systemic change, and this person will continue in this course of life. I’m not helping them.” I think there’s truth to this; while charitable giving in isolated incidents might be effective in making a giver feel good about themselves, may be a good spiritual practice, and may meet an immediate need, it likely doesn’t make much of a dent in the larger social and structural problems causing this person to be in such need that are not being addressed (or are being addressed but the powerful aren’t listening).
Another is, “forget the previous justification…what about the simple joy of human contact, of giving, of connecting with someone by buying them a hot dog, or gas, or a cigarette, or whatever they think they need (not what I patronizingly determine are their actual needs.) What about the simple grace of giving someone something when they ask, without hesitation? Jesus spoke to this.
I don’t have a good answer. I don’t think a consistent “method” would work for me; I think discernment in the situation is appropriate. I think remembering that they are people with names and stories and not just nuisances interrupting my flow/trajectory/expectations is important. Perhaps I’m lacking compassion. Being selfish. Being disrespectful. Perhaps I need to go back to snack bags. Perhaps I need to think more about what it means to give, to be generous, to have a proper relationship to money...what it means to call something "mine."
No easy answer.
An addendum: since I wrote the above, the following conversation happened, while we were sitting in our car, windows down, Clara asleep on Joann:
Man: Hey, do you have any spare change? I need something to eat.
Me: Can I give you an apple?
Man: I don’t have any teeth.
Man: It’s okay, never mind (walks away).