I remember the first time I really saw homeless people. I was in the backseat of the car riding through downtown San Francisco with my family. As we waited for a stop light to turn green, I pointed out to my Dad all the people just sitting around waiting for the bus.
“Honey, they aren’t waiting for the bus,” he said. “They live there.” My heart sank. The weight of his words were too heavy. I didn’t say anything else about it. I simply cried, quietly.
At the time, we lived in a huge Southern California city. I had seen many families and individuals come to the church where my Dad was a pastor and ask for assistance. People who needed help with utilities, food, gas money to continue on their way, would come through the doors of the church. My Dad would take time and listen and try and discern how to best help. The concept of caring for those in need had always been deeply foundational to my worldview. But it had also been very abstract to me until that day in San Francisco, that drive.
Now I am a mother and my three sons are growing up in a diverse urban community. They are confronted daily with people in need, homelessness, and panhandling.
My kids often see things so simply, so concretely. A few years ago, our Sunday drive to church took us past the same corner each week. There was almost always someone standing and asking for money. The faces changed from week to week but the presence of someone with a cardboard sign had become a familiar sight. When my oldest son started to see that this was a regular encounter he decided to put a cup with change next to his seat in the car. That way when we rolled up to the intersection he could give his coins to whomever happened to be standing there that Sunday. He would reach his little hand out the very back window of our minivan and offer his few coins.
Now our morning and afternoon drive to and from school takes us past several busy intersections where men and women are standing on the corner with their signs in hand. As the weather turned milder, we noticed more folks on more corners. My youngest son is usually the first to ask, “Mom, don't we have anything we can give him?”
Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. And when we pass six to eight different folks each day on our commute it can be hard not to become desensitized to the fact that they are even there. Sometimes I’ve found myself rolling up just far enough so the person is out of my periphery. Or, I’ve been tempted to hit the gas and zoom through the yellow light so I won’t have to wait out the next light right next to a smiling sign holder.
These encounters have made for interesting points of conversation and learning for my children and for me. They are a reminder to me that how we respond matters.
In their innocence and curiosity, my kids are the ones that brought to light this need to consider our response to the guy standing on the corner asking for money. Their pleading for me to give something, their questions about why I can’t help, showed me that we needed to do something. We needed to consider ways we could honor the panhandler on the street corner. We needed a plan. Here’s what we came up with:
First, be kind. Sometimes we have something practical to offer and sometimes all we have is a prayer in our hearts and a smile on our faces. Smiles have this amazing ability to diffuse and disarm. When we roll to a stop and there is someone asking for food or money and we have neither to give, we can still honor them with a kind face and a smile. I think it may be worse to be ignored or disdained than to be without money or a home.
Next, we planned ahead to give. When the weather is hot, we keep a small cooler with water bottles inside it to offer folks standing outside. When the weather turns colder, we pack ziploc bags with hand warmers, socks, granola bars, nuts, etc., to hand out. One time, we even put a small chocolate bar in with some winter essentials to give away. I remember the look on one guy’s face when he took the bag and then noticed the chocolate. He smiled and kept waving to us long after I had started driving off. His response warmed our hearts.
Lastly, we planned ahead to serve. Places like Reconciliation Services put in hour after hour, day after day, year after year serving and caring for people in need. Helping serve the Friday night meal, volunteering to help with food pantry, organizing a donation drive or a cleaning project, are practical and meaningful ways for us to care for others. My boys and I try and serve or volunteer at RS regularly, knowing that although we may not always have money or food to give, we can offer our time. We would love you to join us. You will discover that there are many ways to serve!
Having a plan for how to respond, whether through giving, serving, or our kindness, has softened my heart towards the folks I see standing on the corner. I don’t want to ignore or avoid them. That’s why I’ve taken cues from my boys. I want to see the person standing there and strive to honor them, at the very least, with my kindness.
Article by Jodi Mathews