Friday, August 4, 2017

A man came up to the window to ask for money. I know there are those who do this as a scam. So what should you do?

This is a post I've been running occasionally for over a decade. 

Today I'm running it because it is St. John Vianney's feast day. As you can see below, he was a major influence in changing my heart and mind toward the poor. Not that I don't still struggle with the issue, but every time I come back to the quote I feature. St. John Vianney, pray for us!


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' ...

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.

The 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 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
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.

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."

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
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?

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 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.
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.
Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta


  1. This is a good post.
    I do have trouble with the idea of giving money to people who come to the door claiming to work for some charity or other, but if I see someone on the street who needs help, that seems totally different.
    I carry extra bus/light rail tickets with me, and they're also helpful for people who would otherwise have to choose between eating and getting somewhere warm for the night.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Julie. You've brought tears to my eyes, and touched me so. I'm going to try, from now on, to do as you do, and carry around stuff to give to the homeless. I don't encounter them often, as I live in the burbs, but when I go into cities, I'll be sure to remember. Thank you for reminding us of what God calls us to do, every day.

  3. Tante Léonie1/12/11, 2:14 PM

    I have a different perspective.

    Julie, as you know, I live in a big European city. You can't walk a block without running a gauntlet of beggers.

    Beggers here in Europe are different from those in the US. Most often here, they are connected with organized crime.

    I gave to beggers when I lived in the US, all the time -- especially when I lived in Atlanta--but I refuse to do so here in Europe.

    I am especially enraged when I see Roma women begging with drugged babies. They are supporting gangsters who live in palatial houses and drive expensive cars. Begging is much more of a lifestyle choice here. Social benefits are generously available here – not like in the US (we pay close to 50% in taxes here in Europe, much of which goes to social welfare programs).

    These are not the kind of people who I saw, and gave to when I lived in America. I don't feel guilty about this any more; for me, it is a matter of discernment that I've had to make as an expat over the years. This sounds harsh, I know.

    My husband and I tithe generously to local organizations and feel that we are exercising good stewardship this way.

  4. I understand Tante. As I said, there are two schools of thought on the subject.

    However, I don't think human nature was any different back in St. John Vianney's day or in Christ's day.

    Personally, I have to go by what they said and trust to God for the rest. :-)

  5. C.S. Lewis was once walking down an English street with a friend, and the two were approached by a beggar. Lewis' friend scoffed at the man, but Lewis gave him all the money he had in his pocket.

    "Why'd you do that?" Lewis' friend exclaimed. "He's just going to spend it all on beer."

    "Well if I would've kept the money," Lewis answered, "I would've spent it on beer, too."

  6. Dear Julie,

    Couldn't agree more. Both my wife and I figure that if it is a scam, that's between the scammer and God, and if not and the need is real, well then, we're doing what we're supposed to. The way I see it, if I get scammed, I won't ever know (and I'll suffer no harm)--but if I don't give to someone who may be in need, I'll know it forever.



  7. There's an episode of Sports Night where the show's producer tells one of his reporters that when he sees a homeless man, he gives the guy a dollar.

    The reporter says, "What if he spends it on booze?"

    The producer replies, "I hope he does!" and when Dan laughs, he adds, "Who am I to deprive a man of a little novocaine? Most of these people aren't one hot meal away from turning it around, so I hope they use it however they have to."


    A friend of mine said she saw a beggar on a Manhattan street one day and was convinced it was Jesus. Interestingly enough, she's not Christian.

    I said, "What did you do?"

    She said, "I gave Him a dollar."

    About a year later, I was at a rest area with three of my children when a homeless man opened the door for me. I assume he was homeless--he had rough clothes, was unshaven, and had that look about him that I'd come to recognize from the NYC homeless. And as he opened the door, he looked right into my eyes. Right into me--I was just transfixed for a moment. I said thank you and brought my children inside.

    When we left, I went into the car and gathered some of my kids' juice boxes, apples and granola bars to give to him, but the guy was gone, and I couldn't find him again. I don't know if that was a homeless man, a scruffy long-distance driver, an angel, or Christ Himself. But I wish I'd been able to give him a juice box, whoever he was.

  8. I think I first saw that quote from St John Vianney on this site.
    I have to say that from that day forward, my mind and heart changed.
    Who am I to decide who gets my alms? It IS God's good pleasure to place the opportunity to do for my brothers and sisters in my day.

    I keep bottled water and power bars in my truck and hand them out to people who ask (or even look like they have a need). Recently, I bought some apples for a man begging outside of a local supermarket. The man told me that was the first fresh fruit he'd had since he got out of jail. His relief and gratitude were palpable. I am so very grateful to God for allowing me to do this very small thing for one of my brothers.

    I pass on that quote as often as I can and it NEVER fails to change people.

  9. Most of the time when I give people granola bars, they put them to one side. I think, "Well, they can eat them later or trade them for ... whatever ... I suppose."

    But one time at a gas station, there was a woman who'd been huddled beneath the phones. She came slowly over and asked for money while I was pumping gas. As is typical, I had a nickle on me and that was it. I opened the car up and took out the remaining granola bars from inside. There were three and I gave them all to her. I'll never forget watching her wolf them down. She was ravenous ...

  10. It is a tough call when it comes to street people, but for me I go the other way. It's not whether it's a scam or not. That doesn't bother me too much. I assume the poor person is asking for money because he needs it. But in this world of government programs, agencies, and charitable institutions there is no reason for him to be on the street. There are soup kitchens from where he can eat and welfare to supply a residence. This street person is choosing the dysfunctional choice, and really it's to his detriment. By giving him money, you are subsidizing and continuing his dysfunctional lifestyle. He needs to make the choice to get food and help. I frankly have come to the conclusion I am doing him a greater favor in not giving him money. But before you think I'm a total monster, I do contribute to shelters and soup kitchens. That parable of the sheep and goats is one that is very close to my heart.

  11. Thank you for bringing this to our attention again, Julie. At the hospital, it is very close to the DART and at night, especially there are many wanderers. I have been approached and never carry cash- but always energy or granola bars.
    These people stick with me Julie. I can see them very clearly. They truly are our lost brothers and sisters to look after.

    "person to person..." - isn't that what we are called to do?

  12. Having mulled this over some more, I think that when we focus on whether or not to give someone money, we are missing the point.

    Jesus also didn't say to give them cash. He said to feed the poor, etc. However, he is also (as Rita reminds us) about doing things face to face, person to person. So the granola bars, water bottles, bus coupons, etc. are all ways of fulfilling that calling. That makes it even clearer that if the poor person takes it and trades it for cash, it is clearly their call and not our intention. If the European mob wants to do business in granola bars, it is none of my business or intention if I give a hungry person something to eat.

    I think the other thing that we forget is that the dysfunctional person who is choosing not to use institutional support is often truly a lost soul who can't think clearly enough to be able to make such a decision. Here, I am falling back on my very sketchy knowledge of mentally disturbed people from the personal experience I've had with those who were at the mercy of their illnesses. The "logical" choice is one that they often just can't see.

    That said, there is also one HUGE thing we are forgetting when we make the choice to give alms solely by contributing to a charity and not by doing anything hands-on. It is that this is FOR OUR GOOD ALSO. It is not just about the poor person. It is also about how God will use that experience to touch our souls.

    So, if the choice is to support soup kitchens, I would contend that the support should be not only monetary but also in volunteering hours to help.

    There are many, many ways to help the poor. It is up to us to discern how to do it, while still keeping it "person to person."

  13. After reading an earlier post of yours regarding the homeless, I did change my attitude about direct alms giving, trying to give cash when I can (have it on me). Heck, I even gave a man cash AND a granola bar because I happened to have both. :) It was the right thing to do, and my boys, who were with me, still remember it and talk about it.

    My problem is with those who troll parking lots telling sob stories to random people about their broken down car or what have you. My husband and I will help the person with a buck or two once, but when the same person tells the same story about a broke down car to you THREE different times (which happened to us!), then shame on them. I won't be scammed that way. I don't abide blatant liars well. I also get uncomfortable when approached in a parking lot by an imposing man while I'm alone with my two young boys. That happened recently, and it was obvious that two men were working the parking lot together. As much as I may want to help, I really have to think of our safety first.

    Bridget N

  14. This is a great conversation. I really appreciate folks telling there experiences. I can certainly understand prudent caution when encountering homeless / pan handlers. Your and your family safety first.

    I did run in to a similar occurence at that same local supermarket where a man had set up a sign outside of his parked truck that said, "Injured Firefighter. Can't work. Need help". I stopped over to see if I could get him some food and I encountered a teenager that was playing a gameboy / PSP (I get those confused...:)) Dad was not there and I asked if I could get him something and he was very embarrased and angry. So... the point being, was the Dad scamming or what? I don't know. It's very difficult to know if you are being scammed or lied to. Maybe some of these folks are ashamed and embarassed and don't know what else to do than lie. Anyway... it's a puzzler for me. I'll let God decide.

  15. I find this a dilemma too. In the big city where my daughter lives, I once set off early enough to see people setting up there scams in the subway, but my daughter told me, "if they don't smell, they're probably not homeless." But there are lots of people who lack the social skills to maintain a good job in this society and many people without family support, and when you have no cash on you, three Hail Marys for the person is also a good idea.

  16. I live in the sticks so I rarely encounter homeless people. I had one very remarkable encounter with a homeless man however and I still think of him.
    I was in downtown Ottawa, on my way to see a play with the woman my brother had fallen in love with (and would soon marry). As we walked, this man and I locked eyes and we smiled at each other. He was obviously hard up but we enjoyed the moment of recognition that we shared.
    Better than that, later on that evening as my sister-in-law to be and I walked on the icy sidewalk, I slipped and fell. The homeless man was miraculously the one to offer his hand and help me up, asking if I was ok.
    I was GRATEFUL BEYOND WORDS that I was there for an opportunity for this man to HELP ME. I did not give him any money, he did not ask for any. I smiled and thanked him for helping me. I could see/feel the pride he took in being able to help someone else for a change.
    It was such a gift.