I believe in always giving something to people who ask for money on the street. In doing so, I acknowledge each individual’s humanity and resist the impulse to become desensitized.
Several years ago, while walking in Washington, D.C. with my children and nephew, a homeless man approached us, yelling incoherently. I felt badly for the man, yet uncomfortable. I drew the children close to me, hoping to pass quickly. My nine year-old son, however, walked alongside the man. After the homeless man veered off in another direction, my son looked up. I saw that his eyes were filled with tears as he asked, “Why do people have to live that way?”
Since that day five years ago, I passed many people asking for money. Each time I averted my eyes and increased my pace—rationalizing my avoidance by promising to give money to an organized charity. When my children expressed concern, I explained that it’s better to give money and time to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. This, I noted, ensured that the money would be put to good use—not to the purchase of alcohol or other unnecessary items.
Two years ago, I changed my approach. At that time I enrolled in a class about the historical and philosophical foundations of Judaism. The teacher became a mentor and friend—and the class conversations frequently digressed from the assigned topics. With our teacher, we often discussed values, morals, and child rearing.
One day we addressed the subject of homeless people who beg for money. The general consensus was that “organized giving” is better—that individuals might buy booze. A classmate described offering day-work to some homeless people, who declined—preferring hand-outs.
Our teacher, Judy, a woman of strong convictions, explained that she always gives money to people who ask. When a person is sufficiently desperate to beg, she will not refuse. Nor does she sit in judgment. If a homeless person uses her dollar to buy alcohol, this is not her business. She leaves the judging to God.
Since that day, I have never encountered a street person asking for money without giving something. My small contribution will certainly not change a life—and I do believe organized giving is better. Yet I will not pass a human being in need without acknowledging him and recognizing his humanity.
Each time I give money on the street, I make eye contact. I no longer hide behind excuses. This summer we gave money in San Francisco, bought hotdogs for homeless people in Manhattan, and gave a bag of food to a homeless man in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I know that I am not changing the world, and giving a small amount on the street does not make me a great humanitarian. But doing so compels me to remain sensitive, compassionate, and connected. And it teaches my children the same. I believe in responding to all people in need—and this may be the most significant lesson I learned from my teacher.