One cold winter afternoon I went into the ATM vestibule of my local bank to deposit a check and withdraw some cash. Leaning in the corner, doodling on a deposit envelope, was an older man in worn jeans and boots, a grease-spotted sweatshirt and a dingy denim jacket. As I entered, he stopped his doodling and mumbled a question.
“Excuse me?” I said, and took a step closer. He smelled strongly of alcohol and urine and was missing a number of teeth. His eyelids were heavy.
It took a few more tries before I understood what he was asking me: “Do you have a dollar?”
I’ve always felt conflicted about giving money to people on the street. I know that it’s not an effective long-term solution to poverty and homelessness, and I can see how it might even be counterproductive — creating a cycle of dependency, feeding addictions. But that day in the ATM, for whatever reason, I didn’t have the usual mental tug of war with myself. I didn’t think about whether or not it was the right thing to do, or whether this man deserved my help — as if I could possibly know. I didn’t even care that he’d probably spend the money at the liquor store down the street. I just opened my wallet and gave him not one but five dollars.
As I left, I found myself thinking about that biblical teaching, “when you give to the poor, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” I’d always thought of it as just a reminder not to be boastful or conspicuous about giving to charity. But it occurred to me that maybe it meant something else, too; maybe it was a reminder not to reason and rationalize too much when it comes to giving to the poor. When someone is standing in front of you, suffering, don’t think — just help. Let not your head know what your heart is doing.
It was freezing outside that day. I would go home to my family, a warm house, a good meal. But the man taking shelter in the ATM wouldn’t. My giving him a few bucks obviously wouldn’t change his life, but I hope that maybe it gave him some temporary relief —whether that meant bus fare to a shelter downtown or a pocket flask of vodka to keep the shakes away. Maybe even just the moment of connection with another person was a bright spot in his long, cold day.
I still believe that that the best way to fight poverty is to advocate for broader social change and support organizations whose mission is to help the poor and homeless. But I no longer believe that this approach and giving money to people on the street have to be mutually exclusive. The big picture is important, but the small gesture has a value of its own.