Yesterday while out running errands, I made a stop at Target, that great hotbed of middle class consumer delight. I have to confess that there is something about Target – whether it be the colors, the creative ways things are displayed, the easily affordable products (the $1 spot people!), etc. – that always makes me spend more than I intend to. This time, as I walked from my car to the store, I was stopped by a woman holding a sign that read, “Hungry. Please help” and pushing a Target cart with her small toddler daughter in the seat. She made eye contact with me, glanced down at my growing belly and said, “Please help. You know what it’s like to be a mother.”
I was quite taken aback, but old habits die hard so I quickly mumbled something about not having any cash (which was true), averted my eyes and tucked my purse under my arm more tightly as I rushed into the store. About 15 minutes later, when I emerged from Target with purchases in tow and a Starbucks Frappucino in my hand, I could still see her across the parking lot, talking with other customers.
Most of us have probably had experiences like this one, and if you live in a city, it’s probably actually not a very uncommon occurrence. There are a laundry list of cynicisms or advice for “dealing with” situations like this one that I have heard throughout the years:
- If you give this person money, it will probably be squandered, perhaps on drugs or something else. It’s better to offer food or nothing at all.
- Just don’t make eye contact. It’s important to become desensitized, because you will see this all the time.
- There’s too many people and we can’t help them all.
- This is a systemic issue, and giving money or food to someone begging just perpetuates the system. Find other, more helpful ways to work towards alleviating poverty.
- These people aren’t our responsibility.
- People who are out asking for money likely are actually making quite a bit of money, perhaps even more than I make at my job. (Yup, I’ve heard this one)
This list could go on, and you all could probably add your own list of concerns, but all I know is that, yesterday, I was profoundly struck again by how dehumanizing poverty or need must be, and how terrible it must feel to stand with your child in a parking lot and to be passed by and ignored over and over by people carrying bags of merchandise or $4 coffees to their car. I don’t know this woman’s story, and some people might see the statement that she made to me about motherhood as manipulative. But as I thought about it afterwards, driving home from the store, it seemed that maybe it was really just a plea for me to see her: to relate her experiences to my own in some way.
Now I certainly don’t have a strategy figured out for the next time that I see someone. I have at times offered money or food to someone who has asked, and I often do at least try to make eye contact and smile. Last week, I read a blog by Erika Morrison who told about ways that her family is trying to include a “plus one” at every meal that they eat, by providing food for someone who might not have had access to it before.
And it’s easy to look at these solutions and suggest that they are inadequate. It’s true: they are not necessarily addressing all of the forms of brokenness that led people to this place. Offering food or money is not helping to treat mental health conditions, addictions, looking at unfair labor conditions, disparities in access to education, and a whole set of systemic issues that social services can sometimes help to address. But I think that sometimes it is not enough to simply see the system: We need to see each of the people and unique individuals who get caught in its gears, and we need to acknowledge them. What having a conversation or offering some food or acknowledging someone can do is to simply name a person as a person, and to acknowledge them as a person with dignity and worthy of respect.
This semester, I had the opportunity to study Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who spent much of her adult life living with and amongst the poor and homeless. Today, the Catholic Worker movement is still centered on a firm belief in “the God-given dignity of every human person.” There are 213 Catholic Worker communities around the world who are committed to “nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.”
These are communities that seek to be a space for people to come and to feel at home and human. We need to take this call seriously in each new encounter, because it is as Dorothy Day herself said, “I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.”