When I was talking to my sister about this some time ago, she had the short answer. "Pull out your wallet and give them money."
For the longer, more anecdotal version, and the answer to the question "what if it is a scam," just keep on readin' ...
Photo from Barcelona Photoblog
As my long-suffering husband well knows, from the fact that when he gave a handful of change to an Australian man sitting outside a London tube station years ago ... the man shouted after our family, "God bless you mate! Thank you!" My husband muttered, under his breath, "Don't thank me, thank her; I had nothing to do with it" as I gave him a thank you hug. This didn't compare to later on when he would be driving with three people in the car all urging him to roll down the window and hand out granola bars.
GIVING TO THE HOMELESS, FACE TO FACEThe first time I ever saw a beggar was in Paris, 18 years ago. She was across the street and Tom said, "Don't look at her." Of course, I did and she began screaming invective and shaking her fist at me. It's a good thing my French wasn't very fluent or I'm sure my ears would have burned. Everywhere we went there were beggars. It was deeply troubling for someone like me who had never seen such a thing before. Tom, whose family lived in London for several years, was more blasé. He taught me to ignore them and that they were making plenty of money off of the population at large. I did make him give to a couple of WWII veterans who were playing music for their coins but at least they had sacrificed something for their country ... they had done something to deserve our charity.
I wasn't Christian then; I wasn't even sure if God existed. Nothing other than popular thought occurred to me in those situations. That was saved for 15 years later in 2001 when we went back to Paris and London with the girls. I had converted by then, we attended Mass weekly, and they went to Catholic school with religion lessons every day. It was fairly common to see the homeless on street corners but we were insulated by the car and traffic flow. These up close encounters with beggars in Europe were different. Tom and I gave the standard "making money off the crowd" explanation but it didn't sit very well, especially with the Christian precepts that had taken hold by then.
Then, one evening, I read this quote.
There are those who say to the poor that they seem to look to be in such good health: "You are so lazy! You could work. You are young. You have strong arms."You certainly couldn't get much clearer than those words. St. John Vianney covered pretty much every objection I ever thought of for giving to the poor. That was my wake-up call and the end of ignoring beggars. We were supplied with handfuls of coins that were distributed at large as we went through the subway stations.
You don't know that it is God's pleasure for this poor person to go to you and ask for a handout. You show yourself as speaking against the will of God.
There are some who say: "Oh, how badly he uses it!" May he do whatever he wants with it! The poor will be judged on the use they have made of their alms, and you will be judged on the very alms that you could have given but haven't.
St. John Vianney
When I got home I stocked the car with granola bars and bottles of water. I passed them out at every street corner we stopped at. I never have any cash on me and they almost always had signs saying "Will work for food" so it seemed a good match.
Then Dallas passed a law against any panhandling on street corners and, for the most part, the homeless disappeared from sight. I had gotten used to being on the lookout for people to give my granola bars to and now the corners seemed very empty.
About that time, I was the leader of a Catholic women's group that met weekly. One evening our discussion became a debate over two strategies of giving to the homeless. One group believed in giving to people as they were encountered. The other countered with stories of scam artists and believed in giving to organizations who would distribute goods and cash in the most beneficial way to the needy. Two things stuck with me after that meeting though. The first was that my friend, Rita, said she was troubled by those who didn't want to give face to face because "they don't know what blessings they may be depriving themselves of." Once again I remembered St. John Vianney's quote.
I also thought about the very day before when I encountered a homeless man, gave him some cash, and later was extremely glad that I did ... because I'm still not sure who it was that I gave that cash to.
The second thing occurred to me as I listened to the debate. Jesus never said anything about helping the poor by giving to the local temple or soup kitchen. He said:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me."Tom and I do support organized charities and I know they reach farther than I ever could personally. This is not an argument against those organizations. However, I think that we cannot rest with those contributions. I believe that if we have a personal encounter with the needy it is because they have been sent to us for their good and our own. If we turn them away, then we are turning Christ Himself away and what blessings are we sending away with Him?
Then the righteous will answer him and say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?"
And the king will say to them in reply, "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."
Matthew 25: 35-40
This was reinforced for me during a retreat I attended later. Somehow the debate over how to give to the homeless came up along those old familiar lines, not just once but twice. Each time I trotted out my St. John Vianney quote. Then my friend, Mauri, said that when she looked at those unfortunates she saw people she knew. For instance, she has a schizophrenic nephew who doesn't want to take his meds so he has been found wandering only in his boxers in a Chicago suburb. A confused old lady at the bank reminded her of her mother and Mauri found a discreet way to help her while preserving her dignity. She reminded me of the worth and dignity of each of these people. She later sent me this story which is the perfect example of looking past the surface to the real person that is there in front of us.
Today at the post office I saw this man going through the garbage -- I think looking for food as he was going through a discarded fast food bag and picked out left over bun from the bag, emptied the bag of the other garbage, and then used the bag to neatly wrap up the left over bun and then placed it in his satchel. You could tell that he still had his pride as he looked well kept, although worn and a bit "dusty". He was not begging in any way. Just walking through the strip center where the post office was.I am so grateful to Mauri for bringing me to this phase in my awareness of the homeless. Each of them was some mother's baby, a tiny toddler learning to walk, a laughing boy or girl at school. We must remember that when we are looking at these people who can seem so frightening or strange or manipulative. I pray that someday I can look at these people and find my vision is perfect ... I hope that someday I can look at a homeless person and see Jesus Himself. In this quest I think we can not do better than to take the advice of someone who achieved perfect vision and sought out her beloved Jesus in the homeless.
I wanted to help as I sensed that he was hungry, but he was not asking for help and he did not approach me in anyway. I was so worried to bruise his pride, but could not stand the thought of him only having the leftover bun for food. I got out of my car with $5 and asked him if he was hungry. He said he was fine but hesitantly. I gave him the money and told him that there were many times when I was hungry but didn't have the cash on me to go through McDonalds or grab a sandwich. I told him to take it for when he might need it. I don't think I hurt his pride. His eyes were so kind.
I only wish I had asked his name ... He looked like he might have been mid 60s. I should have given him more money. I can't get him out of my mind. He could have been someone's grandfather, father, etc.
Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta