Obviously, there is such a thing as being too gullible, and there’s probably a dishonest panhandler in every neighborhood in the city. Darryl, a fellow volunteer who once lived on the street himself, is well aware of the ruses employed by hustlers, and isn’t above warning us of them. Nor is the Daily News, which helpfully advises its readers of the problem at least once or twice a year. Just last week it ran a dramatic story about a wheelchair-bound man who could actually walk, but collected disability checks for years. Read enough such articles, and you may end up suspecting every homeless person you meet of fraud.
In the end, it’s a choice each of us has to make for himself: to give, trustingly, even if we later find we’ve been had, or harden ourselves and turn a blind eye to someone who is really in need. Meanwhile, when even the godly disparage handouts, perhaps the MTA doesn’t need to bother spending money on ads fighting kindness.
Luckily, there are plenty of New Yorkers who will keep doing what they’ve always done, like the young man I saw a few months ago, who tapped a beggar on the shoulder as he shuffled out of our subway car and gave him not just coins, but several dollar bills. Or the guy a friend of mine saw one night in the park who took off his shirt and gave it to a shivering drunk. Or the little girl at Columbus Circle asking her mother for a coin to give away: “That sign he’s wearing says Homeless. Help a vet. Mommy, can’t we please see if you have a quarter?”
In the Letter of James, the apostle writes, “Suppose you pass someone without clothes and daily food. If you say to him, ‘God bless you,’ but do nothing about his physical needs, what use are your thoughts to him?” It’s a question for each of us who has looked askance at the needy.
“The poor you shall always have with you,” Jesus said before his death. How often do we take these words out of context, and use them as an excuse to do nothing – or at very least, to worry about the poor last? And what of his aside in the Sermon on the Mount, about caring only for our family and friends? “Even the heathen and the tax collectors do that!”
Yes, the poor will always be with us. But surely Christ didn’t point this out in order to nurture our complacency or let us off the hook. I think he said it to remind his disciples that even if he himself would soon be leaving them, the poor would not. On the contrary, they would always be there, waiting for his followers to take care of them. He had to mean this, for he commanded us to love and serve him. And he said that everything we do for “the least of these,” we also do for him.