The first thing I see most mornings as I stumble sleepily from the subway to begin my jaunt to work are homeless people sitting in the station with outstretched cups, right at the top of the escalator.
Near my office in downtown Washington, D.C., homeless people are a common sight. They seem to fit into every nook and cranny of the area buildings. They sleep at night in the doorways of businesses, usually with makeshift tents constructed using newspaper and cardboard.
I don't work in a downtrodden neighborhood. My office is just off K Street. The White House is only a few blocks away. Homeless people sit just feet away from people sipping their coffee at sidewalk cafés. Sometimes they glare and mutter, but often the homeless and the coffee-sippers seem oblivious to each other.
Lawyers and lobbyists dressed in expensive suits step over homeless people lying in the streets, their wingtips inches from "I'm hungry" signs. One woman sits on the corner wearing a newspaper hat. It looks like something you'd do to amuse your children, but she's likely protecting herself from the heat.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that there were more than 630,000 homeless people in the United States in 2012. I bet the number is far bigger.
I have no consistent policy in dealing with the homeless. I've given them money, taken them to stores and restaurants, prayed with them, and talked to them. I like to buy the Street Sense newspapers sold by homeless vendors in Washington. In Boston, a similar paper is called Spare Change.
But I've also hustled by the homeless as if they did not exist. In fact, that's what I do most often.
For whatever reason, I've never given money to the people at the Metro. I usually avert my gaze. It's no consolation to people who are hungry and suffering, I know, but I do feel guilty about it. I often wonder if the more skilled panhandlers can sense that.
One night I felt compelled to walk with a homeless man to an ATM, where I withdrew $60 in cash for him. I did this alone in the dark despite him candidly telling me he had just been released from prison for stabbing someone.
That confession was actually what convinced me to give him money. He had laid out a specific set of needs the funds would meet. His honesty about his rap sheet made me decide to trust he'd use the money wisely.
The homeless can be particular. When I worked in northern Virginia, I used to give money to a homeless man named Terry. He liked to use the money to get barbecue sandwiches. I ran into him not long ago. I told Terry I wasn't going to be in the neighborhood much, but reminded him that my church prepares meals for the homeless on Fridays.
Terry said he'd go if that's what I thought he should do, but he didn't care for the food there. He also didn't like the atmosphere.
I once took a homeless man named Tim to a restaurant to get something to eat. He ordered 24 chicken wings with three different kinds of sauces. After placing the order, he asked, "Is that cool?" I was expecting he'd get a hamburger, but I wasn't going to begrudge him his buffalo wings.
I've had tougher encounters, too, including with a gentleman who politely tells me he hopes I choke on my next meal each time I walk by. I don't take it personally — I get off easier than most other passersby.
But I've also had some moving experiences. "You know how I am going to pay you back?" one mentally disabled young man asked earnestly. "Someday, when I have money, I am going to help somebody else." The printed word cannot convey the simple sincerity he radiated.
There are a million excuses to pass the homeless by, many of them valid. I use them all almost every day. For many of these people, struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, I could empty out my bank account and at best help them only temporarily.
In other cases, the assistance could be counterproductive or even foolish. Many will use any cash they get to buy drugs or booze. Others may lie about their circumstances.
Yet even when I convince myself to keep walking, I can't block out these verses from Matthew: "Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'"
"And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'"
Every panhandler I help could be a scam artist. But each one I pass by could be Jesus.
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