We used to live near Chicago. On rare trips into the city, it was always jarring to find men and women sitting hunched on street corners, holding a cardboard sign and a battered Solo cup. Since all the suburbs we frequented had regulations against panhandling, though, this rare discomfort was easily forgotten.
Last year we moved to a new metropolitan area. In this area, there are no regulations against panhandling, and every intersection near the expressway has at least one corner with a well-trodden dirt path. In all weather, at all hours of the day–and some at night–they patrol their posts. Mostly they are men, though there are a few women, too. They are young, middle-aged or nearing retirement; they are black, white, or Hispanic; they are accompanied by faithful pets or by oxygen tanks. But all of them are careworn, haggard, hopeless.
Their signs are haunting: “Homeless – Anything Helps.” “Hungry – Homeless – Please Help.”
From the back seat: “Mommy, that man’s sign says he’s hungry. Why doesn’t he have food, Mommy?” “Mommy, why does his sign say he is homeless? Why doesn’t he have a house?”
How do you explain that life doesn’t always go as we plan?
I don’t love the notion of panhandling; Love likes it all the less, having been around more panhandlers and had more negative experiences. We buy canned goods and bring them to a local food shelter, donate to food drives around the holidays, tell our children of the government agencies whose job it is to help those who can’t make ends meet.
But still we see them almost daily, their signs accusing. “But those men are hungry, Mommy. We have to DO something!”
So we do. We pack gallon bags with a bottle of water; a few items of food; a list of local food pantries, shelters, and social service agencies. (Why is it that so many food pantries require proof of residence and only help you once a month?) “Why don’t we add a note, too, Mommy?” So we do.
Our first bag went to a middle-aged man we saw on our way home from Bible study this week. I handed it out the window with a nervous smile and no words–What do you say when handing someone a thimble as they stand in a sinking ship?–and he thanked me and set it near the box he’d been sitting on. From the back seat, there was much rejoicing. “Now he won’t be hungry today!” “I’m so happy we could help him, Mommy!”
One small bag of food handed to a homeless man standing under clouds promising rain. What good is one small bag of food in the face of poverty–hunger, homelessness, joblessness, prescriptions that can’t be paid for…? My children feel as if they have conquered poverty through their act, but I feel more impotent than ever.