Uncomfortable Charity

Why does the act of charity, in this case, the transaction initiated by a beggar or panhandler, feel so uncomfortable to me? Mental recriminations if I give (Did I just get ripped off? Did I give the right amount? Too little? Was that insulting?), guilt if I don’t (Yeah, I remember your sermon, King Benjamin). Perhaps it is because I don’t know the protocol, the expectations, and so I’m worried about an inadvertent transgression. And perhaps it is because I’m not sure that there is a clear protocol, a set of rules that bind and protect both me and the beggar. After all, the practically right thing to do is often contingent on context.

This morning, there was a young woman sitting by the entrance of my local Carrefour grocery store. I saw her, with her little plastic cup on the ground in front of her, and nodded in acknowledgement as I went in with my husband. She was still there when I went to the store later with my son. I don’t carry cash, so I had nothing to give her. (Note: we have no car, so we can only buy what we can carry in reuseable bags or our little trolley.)

Too often, I find myself avoiding eye contact as I give beggars a dismissive wave. I don’t want to raise false hope. Most beggars here are quiet, humble. They are not aggressive, and I’ve never felt threatened by them.

A few months ago, I was in a Dutch language class for new residents. One of the people I met there has been here for 18 months, and is still waiting for his refugee status to be accepted so he can get permission to work. The bureaucracy is slow. He is given a small allowance to live on by the state. For a month, it is about half of what I spend to buy groceries my family for half of a week. He won’t starve, and he is grateful, but his choices are very limited.

I remember when I was a young mother, and relatively poor. For a period of time, we had budgeted $100/month for groceries, gas, and laundry because everything else was going to pay for rent and medical bills. Some time after that, we were identified by the ward as a family in need of help, and the Relief Society president brought us a truckload of food from the Bishop’s Storehouse. I was deeply embarrassed because I felt like we were making it work, but we ate that food. They gave us household goods, too, laundry detergent and soap that I couldn’t use because of my sensitivity to chemical fragrances.

There have been times when, completely unexpectedly, some stranger has taken it on a whim to do me a favor. To pay for my meal at a restaurant, to buy a treat for my children (after carefully checking to be sure that it was okay with me). Such small acts have lifted my spirits, have made the day unexpectedly good, left me with a buzzy sense of well-being and love for my fellow humans.

So I walked back to the store and sat down on the pavement by the young woman. Here’s what I can see about her: she is clean and well-put-together, but her clothes and shoes are cheap and not new. She smiles at me, and we try to talk, but it turns out that we have only a few words in common amongst the different languages that we try. I understand that she needs food, and I finally persuade her that I would like to go into the store with her and buy her some groceries.

We get a rolling basket, and she walks into the produce section hesitantly. She holds up tomatoes. Yes. I put them in the basket. She looks through the carrots, and I help her bag some up. Cauliflower? Yes. We struggle it into a bag together, smiling and laughing. Is fruit okay? Yes. We load up with peaches, pineapple, grapes. We get potatoes and onions. The basket is getting full, but we keep going.

We get a couple of chickens, some ground beef and cutlets. Coffee, sugar, Coke. Cooking oil. Toilet paper, laundry detergent and fabric softener. Our arms are overflowing. I start carrying things to the front of the store, and she meets me, with some socks and underwear. When we check out, we fill three big bags (the Coke will be carried by its own handle).

When people have bought things for me, I’ve felt embarrassed, worried to choose what I want or need. But if I’m going to give someone a little shopping trip at the store, I’m not going to tell her, no, you can’t choose meat or laundry detergent. My goodwill should not strip her of the dignity of choice. I know the value of small luxuries, like a cold Coke or new socks. There can be great pleasure in small extraneous things that belies their frivolity.

I expect that this woman has some access to food and other things that she needs. Maybe she even has an abundance. But the odds are that she doesn’t have quite enough, and that she doesn’t often get to walk through a store, filling her basket with the good things that she needs and wants. And even if she does, why shouldn’t she enjoy the wonder of a small, unexpected generosity?

It was small. Our little spree cost less than a standard trip to Target in which I don’t get everything on my list but manage to come home with several things I didn’t realize I was going to buy.

I left her outside the store with her three bags and bundle of Coke. She said she could call someone to help her take things home. We hugged, kissing each other on the cheek. And I left the store for the third time today, this time walking home with my hands empty.

I write this not to elicit praise or condemnation. I write to consider how I help and have been helped, and to spread the sense of wonder and gratitude that I have felt today. It wasn’t that hard to act, to find a way to overcome my anxiety and hesitation to do something small that made the day a little nicer. It was a small grace that struck me, and I am thankful that I got to share it with such a lovely person. I hope that when such a grace strikes me again, that I embrace it. I find that I live in a better world when I do.

16 comments for “Uncomfortable Charity

  1. acw
    June 10, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Thanks for sharing that sweet experience (and the King Benjamin comment! Amen!). This is also a tricky topic for me. The other day we walked past a man in downtown SLC with one of those “anything helps” signs so I offered him the containers of leftover restaurant food I was carrying. He started interrogating me, “What’s inside? What’s the sauce made of? Does it have tomatoes?” until my children were uncomfortable and we finally left. He didn’t want the food, and my kids learned about the meaning of that “beggars can’t be choosers” phrase. It didn’t leave me with a good feeling like yours did. I’ll keep looking for better opportunities to help.

  2. June 10, 2017 at 10:44 am

    I’ve had bad experiences like that, too. They increase my anxiety. That’s why the little experiences like this one are valuable for me to cultivate: they change they way I experience the world.

  3. Joy
    June 10, 2017 at 11:06 am

    What I especially like about what you did is the fact that you engaged with her as a person, one and one. That was perhaps almost as important to her as the groceries that you bought. This is a fine example and I hope to be able to emulate it one day.

  4. June 10, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    What Joy said. Just treating them as humans, not objects, is valuable to them. To us.

    I’ve had similar experiences to both ACW and Rachel. I’ve had guys say “I don’t want that, I want money.” I’ve had a guy in a jumpsuit (the kind you wear in methadone rehab in Harlem) hug me, weeping for a small gift of groceries, just some fruit, a juice, and few carbs. It’s a dance, and sometimes you step on toes or have your toes stepped on, but it’s important to keep dancing. Good for you for listening to King Ben. You bought groceries for Jesus.

  5. Drew H.
    June 10, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    I used to give generously to panhandlers, no questions asked, no judgement. I figured if they used it to buy drugs or alcohol that was on them, not me. Until this one time when I recognized a guy who had given me the exact same sob story the week before while I was getting money from an ATM (it’s illegal to panhandle near an ATM in most US states, by the way).

    After that I realized that all the nickels and dimes (or $20, in the case of the aforementioned man who scammed me, since I’d just gone to the ATM it was the smallest I had) that I’d given to panhandlers over the years may or may not have been going to people in need. I studied the issue a bit and every professional I talked to who worked with the homeless said you should not give to panhandlers. Many of these people have substance abuse issues and are in programs that require them to meet certain conditions to keep getting help. By giving them money or food you’re enabling them to circumvent the requirements of their program which only hurts them in the long run. I decided that if I give to a well-established charity the likelihood is that much greater it’s going to someone in need.

    Carry cards with the contact information for a shelter in your city that you donate to. If asked for money or food, give the card. They may try to hit you up for a ride to the shelter as well, I’m told that it’s better if they make their own way.

  6. Clark Goble
    June 10, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Honestly there are lot of people in tough straits who aren’t panhandling who often need the money worse. I’d find out where the local programs for the homeless are in your area and give generously. In the Provo area there’s a large building across from the Post Office in east bay (south of the tracks, turn at the Taco Bell). You can drive up and drop off donations of either canned goods or other items. I’d also ask what they are most in need of as it changes seasonly.

    It’s been a few years but I used to do volunteer work at the local soup kitchen and surprisingly (at least then) food wasn’t the big need. They had more than they needed as BYU gave most of their leftover cafeteria food to the soup kitchen. But they were often in very short supply of diapers and feminine hygiene products. As I said, ask though as the needs change.

    Personally I’d not give to pan handlers at all as often you’re simply neglecting the others in the most need.

  7. Rachel Whipple
    June 10, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    Drew and Clark, I agree, and I’m much more confident about these things when I’m in the States. I know the services (and some of the challenges) for people in the Provo area, so I feel that I can make more responsible choices. But I don’t know the system as well here in Belgium as I do there in Utah, which is why I chose to make this about connecting with one person, regardless of actual need, than a new strategy for dealing with every beggar on the street.

    Acknowledging the humanity of other people is important. Call it a categorical imperative. But it is also risky, because it makes us vulnerable in our humaness as well.

  8. Tim
    June 11, 2017 at 7:44 am

    It’s not just Provo where food isn’t the biggest need at food pantries. Most prefer cash, as it allows them to buy what typically doesn’t get donated, such as fresh produce and non-canned meat. Also, since most people donate food, and since government assistance (in the U.S. at least) revolves around food, things like toilet paper, diapers, etc. are usually in demand.

    My local community donates hundreds of food baskets at Christmas every year. It’s a great thought, a lot of people donate time and money to it, and it does some good, but it’s not the most effective way to get those who need help the things they really need. Many of the families that get food baskets are already receiving food assistance from the government and have plenty of food–but have other significant needs. Rachel’s example of actually speaking with someone and asking them what they need is a great example of a better way to do things. And of course, the human element is also crucial.

  9. Chadwick
    June 11, 2017 at 7:57 am

    I spent last week in manhattan for work. Saw loads of panhandlers. One night while getting off the subway a man who spoke little English but otherwise seemed to be dressed nicely kept saying the word money to me. He was clutching a metro card. So I grabbed the metro card and put money on it for him. Such a small thing, and I still have no idea if either of us understood each other, but I walked away feeling really good. I’ll never miss the $10 anyway.

    I’ve been scolded so many times for doing what I thought were kind acts of service, but I don’t care. Critics gotta critique after all.

    It’s nice when you can fill a very specific need like in Rachel’s story. And what a neat experience to grocery shop with her rather than simply handing her a bag of food. It takes a great deal of courage to handle that much awkwardness during such a lengthy exchange (at least, it would for me). Thank you for sharing.

  10. June 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Bold, brave, kind, vulnerable, charitable, compassionate. Thanks Rachel.

  11. June 11, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    “Yeah, I remember your sermon, King Benjamin”

    Ed Kimball’s anecdote about his father seems worth mentioning here: “[Spencer W. Kimball’s] brother-in-law Henry Eyring once asked him how he dealt with the scripture in Mosiah about not denying the beggar. Acknowledging the difficulty in complying, Spencer smiled wryly as he said self-deprecatingly, ‘I always read fast when I get to those verses.'” King Benjamin’s exhortation makes us all uncomfortable, and I think it is supposed to.

    “Too often, I find myself avoiding eye contact as I give beggars a dismissive wave.”

    My tendency to do this weighs heavily on me, so when I have nothing on me to give (nor the time to purchase something), I try to make eye contact with the beggars or indigent that I pass, acknowledge them and share some kind words. When I’m with my children, I’ll tell my children to say hello, which never fails to bring a smile to these people’s faces.

  12. Clark Goble
    June 12, 2017 at 11:10 am

    A recent EconTalk on homelessness in cities is perhaps worth reading. They have transcripts if you prefer not to listen to a podcast. He gets the issue I think Rachel is touching upon that it seems right to give to people even if it isn’t solving the problem. To quote:

    I feel good about it, not because I think I’m doing the right thing. I feel good about because I think I’m helping them. Now, I could be wrong. I might not actually be helping them. I might be making their situation worse. I might be discouraging them from choosing some other option. Right? I might be discouraging them from going to a more formal system of help. But my view is that the people I’m giving money to, the more tragic-looking ones–they either seem uneasy about having an interaction with, say, a non-profit or a government agency. And their lives are miserable. I feel bad for them. And I’m trying to do a very small amount to make their lives a little more pleasant.

    The question then becomes whether doing this is perpetuating the problem rather than solving it. There is a strong case to be made that it perpetuates drug use, tent cities and ironically the public becoming more scared of homeless people. (Since it moves more of them onto the sidewalks with some becoming aggressive as well making large semi-permanent tent cities with disease, drug paraphernalia, violence, and damages the areas of the city in strong ways) Yet on the other hand, the basic humanity of helping these people is important.

    I’ll fully confess my own view is to never give to panhandlers. Again that’s primarily due to my experience in the past of working with homeless. While I was volunteering people would come in offering jobs that paid better than I was making at the time. A lot of it is either drug addiction, mental illness, or enjoying the lifestyle. But I tend to think these people need help and panhandling is a way to avoid getting help. (Not to mention some people who simply abuse the charity of others)

  13. A Turtle Named Mack
    June 12, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    We encounter panhandlers on a daily basis where we live. I have embraced all of the above reasons for giving, or for not giving, at various times. However, one day my young daughter was with me when we walked past a man who was asking for money. She asked why I didn’t give any money to him, because he seemed to need it and she knew I had some in my pocket. Intent on helping her to understand the nuances of giving, and the complexities of the various situations of those we repeatedly encounter on the street, I trotted out versions of these many reasons. Before long, it became clear that those reasons didn’t resonate with her, and didn’t really satisfy her desire to help others. I decided that if my explanations for not giving were so nuanced that an 8 year-old couldn’t understand them, they were simply too nuanced to be valid. I gave her a dollar, and she passed it along. Since then, we both make sure there are always a couple of dollars available to be passed along. She carries a small supply, and I replenish it when it gets low. Sometimes, now, she replenishes the stash with her own money. Those dollars aren’t missed, and each time I see her pass one along, I feel proud that she cares, and am reminded of the guilt I felt that day in trying to justify my inaction. It’s only a dollar, and it may be more symbolic that it is practical, but it reminds me to not over-think charity.

  14. Old Man
    June 13, 2017 at 10:53 am

    I think we have a moral responsibility to make sure that our charity is actually effective and not destructive. There is a person in my ward who actually impersonates a homeless person in Salt Lake City to raise cash. He refuses to work and is continually going to the Bishop to get more money. The last Bishop would not give him welfare unless he held a calling. He performs his calling every Sunday and walks out as soon as that calling is completed. Another ward member was a meth addict and was manufacturing meth with her son from common household chemicals partly secured through church welfare.

    If we want to be part of solutions for people’s troubled lives, we should to charitably invest in programs and real expertise which could help deal with the seriousness of the problems people face. Handing money out to panhandlers does not do that.

  15. asdf asdf
    June 14, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Indeed old man…
    ” I think we have a moral responsibility to make sure that our charity is actually effective and not destructive. There is a person in my ward who actually impersonates a homeless ”
    I would welcome the liberal response if we changed the person begging for money to the person begging for ammo…
    Sure it would make them feel better to have someone give them a gift… But if they use that ammo to go shoot a republican congressman I would feel guilty if I had given them the ammo…

    Why does the moral obligation to away when they do something that only harms themselves…? Facilitating a crime is still immoral.

  16. June 14, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    Thank you, Rachel, for sharing this experience. It was touching and lovely.

    I grew up in Salt Lake and later lived in Pasadena and in San Diego. Now I live in Adelaide, Australia. I don’t know what it’s like in other major cities in Australia, and I hear there is more begging elsewhere, but here there are very few panhandlers. Plenty of buskers (street musicians who often put out a jar for donations) but not much actual begging. This is also a country with a fairly strong social safety net. I can’t help but think that the two facts–the relatively low numbers of panhandlers and significant financial assistance for the poor–are connected.

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