Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The disconnect of "No!"

Last Friday evening, just after I stepped onto the Red Line train to North Dallas, a homeless man approached my area of the car with a cup in his hand.

"Can you spare me a little change, brother," he asked the fellow standing just in front of me.

The guy ignored the beggar, so, he moved to me.

I saw him coming, in more ways than one, so I greeted him and exchanged a lively handshake.

"So, where are you staying?" I asked.

I heard the word "bridge," and assumed he meant The Bridge, Dallas' new homeless assistance center Downtown.

"Oh, you're at The Bridge," I followed.

"No, man," he responded, "The Bridge is too crowded and they won't let us stay there. Me and my old lady live under the bridge," he explained. "I'm trying to get about seven bucks to buy us some dinner."

"Oh, I see," I replied.

"Can you spare me some change," my new friend pressed--he had the rest of the train to work and needed a decision from me.

I dropped the change I had in my pocket from the train ticket vending machine into his paper cup.

"Thanks, brother, God bless you," he said with a huge toothless smile.

As he shuffled down the aisle, looking for others to approach, I began to think about the impact of a "No."

People ask me all of the time, "What should I do about panhandlers on the street?"

I gotta tell you, I don't have a clue. I understand all of the arguments on both sides. And, I have no consistent position or track record in terms of how I respond. At times, I give freely. At other times I have turned away with a short "No," or worse, I have simply pretended not to see or to hear.

But, as I rode the train up the rail without the burden of navigating the heavy traffic, I thought about the power and the nature of "No" when spoken to another human being.

"No" is about judgment.

"No"--there is no possible way that verdict can be endearing, connecting or anything but total rejection in a moment.

"No," especially, I think, in a chance encounter does not help any one.

I have no answer for the gentleman who approached me Friday night as we cut through the growing darkness of a busy city. I don't understand how he got to the place in life that his best option is begging on a commuter train and sleeping under a freeway bridge. I have no brilliant intervention to offer. I have no chance to really do much with him.

But it occurs to me that "No" is not what he needed to hear, and it's not what I needed to say.

As I was lost in my thoughts, the train made a stop.

Another homeless man boarded. He carried a large, thick, well-used study Bible of some variety. A backpack attached to his back, he struggled to unfold and to count a wad of dollar bills that he clutched in his hands. I suppose he had made his supper money for the evening. He asked for nothing as he settled into the ride north.

I wondered how many "No" verdicts he had dealt with before collecting the treasure that would make his night a bit less harsh.

For a personal perspective provided by a homeless young man from the streets of Denver on the whole matter of how it feels to encounter rejection on the streets, take a look here.

(Matthew 5:42--Jesus)



Anonymous said...

I don't want to say no, but am not sure what to do.

Is there some sort of voucher program that could be established. I buy coupons that are good for a night somewhere, a meal -- something and I just hand that out.

I know that is imposing my will on what the recipient does, but I guess I can live with that.

Larry James said...

I've concluded that it is not about what anyone does in these encounters. It is first about the people involved and how they feel and think and react to each other. There is no fail safe "policy." Rather, there is an opportunity for strangers to connect as human beings, with the unexpected offshoots and possibilities of such short, random encounters. I don't need to control the other person. I do need to respond as a loving human being to the other, no matter what our differences may seem, and without judgment. I have found that there is liberation in such moments, for both parties.

Lisa Robinson said...

Larry, great thoughts. It's interesting you mentioned the story from Denver because the city, in collaboration with homeless service providers, implemented a no pan-handling initiative and encourages pedestrians that would have dropped some change in a cup to drop the money in designated meters. I don't know all the technicalities of how the system works, but I believe the money is then redistributed to service providers who actively engage the street population to get them into shelter or permanent support housing in a housing first type of model.

These are tough issues. Many of the street homeless have tremendous barriers to overcome that make that current lifestyle seem more profitable to them than shelter compliance. There's a lot of fear involved, I think. You don't want to not give money but at the same time, you don't want to enable behavior that keeps them on the streets. Or at least that is my dilemma.

Nonetheless, I do think it takes some honest and effective collaboration backed with some political will.


Anonymous said...

I am paraphrasing, but Tony Campolo's response to this question, and to the concern that the recipient might use the money for something destructive like alcohol, was something like: "It's my responsibility as a Christian to give; what he does with it is his responsibility." I think that's really what Larry is saying. It's the most (only?) respectful response to another person's need. But it sure isn't easy to let go like that!

Lisa Robinson said...

Anonymous, the comment was not related to what the individual does with money but about how to adequately address the needs of such individuals who find more comfort on the street. And I can't help but think that what's needed is a level of intensive engagement to address the barriers that prevent the street homeless from taking steps to greater independent living, something that continual charitable contributions may circumvent. We give because we see a person in need. But maybe what that person really needs is not a handout. That's all I'm saying.

Anonymous said...


I understand what you're saying and do not disagree. We should be looking at the bigger picture and trying to find better solutions. I think Larry's comments, though, and the paraphrase of Tony Campolo I made earlier, go to what we do in the meantime. Until there is a better, bigger solution, do we give when asked? I think the response that shows kindness and compassion is "yes." As Larry says, "no" will never form a connection between people. "No" is certainly a rational response, but it can almost never convey to the other person that you care.

Anonymous said...

Larry, if you don't have it figured out, the rest of us don't have a chance! (smile) Great post. You touched the heart of the matter.

Anonymous said...

If you'd like an update on the current situation of our homeless situation in Dallas, please read this:

picked up from my blog by Pegasus News.

It sheds some light, I hope, on how complicated things that seem simple can actually be.

Thank you,
Karen Shafer

Anonymous said...

that link didn't come through...

faye said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. My husband and I, having lived downtownish and now in Oak Cliff, have this conversation sometimes. We have wondered aloud what you might actually say, with your extra insight into the reality of homelessness.

Your answer resonates right away, and it also opens up a HUGE conversation, especially for someone who is usually just a lurker to blabber on about! First, I think, "Yeah, my position isn't to judge or govern someone's choices; it should be to serve."

However, I've always found the concept of "how much," be it time, money, or whatever, to give. It's a little overwhelming. I'm not a religious person, but I tend to think of it in terms of religion...Do we lean more towards Jesus, the widow with her mite, Mother Theresa; or do we think in terms of tithes and sleep well because of the 10 percent. I remember learning about the Holocaust as a child and thinking, "Why didn't the people across the world give up EVERYTHING to help those people?" And yet today, situations of dire need exist, and I am typing on my computer about organizations and spare change. Every day, in different ways, we are confronted with the decision of "how much."

Of course, I also remember wishing my lovely grandmother would stop giving and giving to relatives who took and took and took or who squandered it on drugs and came back for more. I thought, "she should tell them no. She should cut them off for their own good." And how familiar this sounds to the argument regarding giving to 'beggars.'

This issue of "how much," "how many times," is what leaves me still partially conflicted, when I apply the mindset you described in your blog post to organizations.

As someone who tends to set giving boundaries after I'm already a little too exhausted, I think of people in organizations who we've seen squander the help of others after asking for it--Exhausted, If you're someone who has been the giver in the situation, you start to think that you are making progress by saying to yourself, "I should invest in the people who are motivated to move forward, or who I somehow know will use my gift of time/help wisely.

Funny, when I say this regarding organizations, it feels like a healthy boundary. When I write it here and think of it in terms of homelessness and people in need of THAT kind of help, my words seem harsh. Not hard to see why one might feel conflicted! :)

Anonymous said...

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

In the past month, I have been approached several times by young mothers with small children that have been panhandling for money for food and shelter. Saying 'no' in notably unhelpful to both of us. The opportunity to give to someone in need is an opportunity to grow in God's grace. Give generously. Always. Let mercy prevail.

Anonymous said...

Several decades ago when I lived in Houston, TX and volunteered at one of the churches along Fannin Street, during another period of particularly hard times, the number of people walking along the streets and asking for money, sad and stressed, increased amazingly.

Structures already in place, through a cooperative group called Metropolitan Ministries, was evolved into something similar to the Denver program, I guess, and was actively promoted among the multiple congregational communities as well as the museums and other area entities. Was a sort of doorway for daily food, clothing, basic healthcare and other necessities which were shared with those who could find a way to accept.

Reflecting on social issues so huge, so much larger than any of these individuals, families or their stories, we assume some responsibility to offer help of a higher order which hopefully makes pocket change add up. Know everyone is assuming this and we acknowledge the momentary "yes" or "no" is more about our own personal journey than the compelling "other" stirring our heart.

Guess I wonder whether sometimes saying "no" can be really saying "yes", especially if we've humbly collaborated actively with others and related institutions to offer something more active and hopeful.