The Guilt of Helping the Homeless

Buying a homeless man a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, a strange guilt came upon me…

Last spring I ran (if you can call it that) my first half marathon. Let’s just say I did what I set out to do: finish. An overwhelming sense of entitlement came with crossing this off my bucket list. Determination to continue to wake for early morning workouts faded fast. Suffice to say with all the holidays behind us, my fitness level needs tending.

Day two of the fit resolution, I found the newfangled TRX workout was more than sculpting my curves and decided (since I’m not a soldier or professional athlete) to quit halfway through the class. The perfectionist in me screamed, but it felt good giving a voice to my body.

The quiet of the morning still before me, I headed to do what I love: Write in solitude away from the distraction children and chores usher in. But there was a distraction, guilt.

The scruffy man in his puffy jacket and beanie was visible when I whisked into the parking slot just outside the entrance of the café.

Commonly approached by panhandlers I was certain I’d be approached. Living in a community that happens to be the dumping ground for San Francisco’s struggling, being approached by panhandlers is common and I was certain I’d be approached.

Think on that. Someone decided these people were unfit to be within the perimeter of one of the countries most “accepting” cities and gave them a one-way bus pass and false hope of finding a job. You can imagine that my community isn’t thrilled about this arrangement as we lack adequate means of aiding and supporting these people.

There was Fred, weather-worn face and crooked smile asking me if I would please buy him a cup of coffee on this brisk morning.

With an honest smile, I obliged.

As I carried the steaming cup of coffee to this man, guilt settled over me.

Maybe it was guilt because I’m a law-abiding citizen and the voice of an annoyed police officer pinged in my ears.

While buying a warm meal for a needy man at a local food establishment the police were called. My family spoke with the officer that made it clear, “People like you are perpetuating the problem by helping these people.” According to the police officer and many annoyed community members, the best kindness towards these “dangerous”, smelly, germy people is demonstrated in a tough love approach.

Maybe it’s because I’m working out to “stay fit” while people like this man are living in a first world country hand to mouth surviving.

Maybe it’s because I know fully that every material possession I have can be stripped away in the blink of an eye.

Can we ever forget the economic collapse of 2008? Consider your savings account, debt and assets. What would you do if your income was cut off today? What would you do if you were struggling to feed your family after all the bills were paid and there wasn’t money enough for food?

We’ve become a cynical hypo-society.

Germs are evil and everywhere you look, painstaking measures are taken to eradicate contact with someone else’s germs. Anything we perceive as a threat to our way of life, opposing views, germs, political positions….we actively work to extinguish. We doubt the integrity of those asking for assistance, and miss opportunities to help. Barricading ourselves from people and ideas means closing the doors on growth and missed opportunities.

Maybe I feel guilty because of my internal battle.

My heart is big enough and desires to help the needy, but I’m angry with the choices people make that lead a community down a rough road. Leaving the café I stopped and spoke with Fred, the homeless man. His story of living on the streets eight years ago began with a skiing accident that opened the door to pain pills. He didn’t lie about his struggle with opiates or how free he feels living on the streets without the stresses most of us face. His stresses are different, but manageable to him.

My internal conflict brews as I grapple with the police officer’s words wondering if I am perpetuating a problem. Maybe some people don’t want the type of help I think they need or should have.

I said goodbye to Fred, his blue eyes resembling my brothers now barely visible under his beanie. His heartfelt gratitude for acknowledging his presence, speaking with him and buying a cup of coffee pricked my heart.

Looking over the hood of my comfortable car I reply, “You’re not invisible” and head home for a warm shower, freshly laundered clothes, a nurturing breakfast and time with my family.

There’s no reconciling my inward battle, but I know Christ meets me in the thick of my mess and I’ll continue to buy that hot coffee or meal when I know I’m suppose to- guilt free. My hope in those small acts, that as many meals as it takes from a myriad of people, a heart would be touched by the living hope anyone can have in Christ.

Will you buy that cup of coffee when the moment comes?

8 responses to “The Guilt of Helping the Homeless

  1. Please don’t ever feel guilty for helping. No one would be in that position if they were capable of living differently. We have lost sight of the reality that people have limits. Not everyone has it in them to be a superhero, nor should they require them to be. The people who insist that help hurts are liars. At the very worst, helping the homeless takes power from the powerful who believe that they have the right to control the most.vulnerable (for their own good, of course). But reality is that if the powerful really want to help, they have to give up that control and simply give people what they need, knowing that once people are safe and not consumed by the demands of a hand to mouth existence, they will start grabbing at their own power and get better. Cities which simply provide no strings attached apartments, food and social workers prove this to be true. Also, do you remember those studies where rats given free access to drugs used them compulsively until they died? What most people don’t realize is that rats living together in families and communities don’t do that. Only rats living in isolation do. In fact, addicted rats who are returned to group settings gradually kick their habits on their own. Tough love is rarely the answer. Reckless, abundant, unconditional love is the cure for what ails Fred.

    • Rebecca,
      Thank you for such a thoughtful response! Control is a terrible beast, isn’t it! It leaves a devastated wake in its path. I have read studies about cities and free services, but I’ve never heard about the rats. What a remarkable study! Thank you for stopping by and carrying the thoughts further! Hope to see you back here:)

  2. Intense, in the best way possible. I loved this piece, so honest. Where I live in Thompson, Manitoba, Canada, we have a very distinct and significant transient and homeless population. The city is small and so the “unwanted” segment of society is highly visible. Almost without exception each of these individuals are First Nations (Native Americans in the USA) and the road that led them to where they are now is littered with what “we perceive as a threat to our way of life, opposing views, (… and) political positions. There are no easy solutions and yet so many times there is an easy answer to the conviction that too often we silence and you have so eloquently described what that answer looks like.

    • Julie! I don’t know how this slipped through without a proper response! Thank you! Thank you for giving us a snapshot of what this looks like in your neck of the world and for your encouragement to continue to be hands and feet when and where God calls. Don’t you just wish it could be more comfortable to be those hands and feet? lol.

      • Always! But then again, I think it is our dis-ease & discomfort that help ground us in humility before the Lord & remind us that apart from Him we can do nothing. That is my spirit-filled response … my fleshly response is, oh yes, make it easier Lord!! Haha.

  3. I spent some time in San Francisco and understand about being constantly approached by homeless people. It is heart breaking to be constantly put in a position of face with the uncomfortable truth that not everyone lives in comfort. My two years near the bay made me understand how every person has value, no matter how they live at the moment. I am ashamed to have walked by so many without helping. It is easy to look at homelessness as a group problem. One person can not help them all, but by giving Fred a coffee, you made his life a little better, if only for a moment.

    • Christiana, Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective! You got me thinking with your ending, “you made if life a little better, if only for a moment.” Sometimes that’s just what we need, right?

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