Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Should I Give Money To The Homeless?

Q - After graduating from A&M last year, I took a job in Houston. On an average day I probably pass by 30-40 people who are homeless and holding up signs asking for money. At first I could just drive by, but as time passes, I start feeling guilty about not helping. If I gave only $1 to every homeless person I saw it would take more than $10,000 dollars a year. Is there anything wrong with not giving money to the homeless?

A - Thanks for the question.  Guilt can be a good thing or a bad thing, so sorting it out is necessary.  Guilt is good when it is proper - we have done something wrong (or not done something we should) and then we feel guilty.  This should lead to repentance.  But, sometimes our consciences can be faulty.  It can make us feel guilty when we ought not. This is self-condemnation that is not spiritually healthy and leads to scrupulosity - which is an overactive conscience.

With this being said, it isn't uncommon for someone to feel guilty about seeing someone who has so little on the streets while we have so much.  Yes, we have a lot.  We ought not compare our belongings to those who have more, when we live in the wealthiest country in the world for all of history.  So, a twinge of guilt is common and in some ways expected.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Our response, and our duty, is to always help those who are in need.

Catholic Social Teaching has what is commonly referred to as the "preferential option for the poor".  When you feel that twinge of guilt, it is because you feel a solidarity with your fellow human being.  Vatican II put it this way:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. - GS, 1
Remember that Christ had a special love for the poor and even chose to be born into poverty.  As followers of Christ, we are called to imitate his love for others.

So, does this mean that you have to give money to every homeless person you meet?  No.  That isn't necessarily your job, nor is it necessarily good stewardship of the resources you have been entrusted with by God.  Many homeless are addicts or mentally ill.  They don't need to have money that might feed their addiction.  Rather, it is a good idea to hand them food or give the money to a local charity that can assist them in ways they need.  A shelter, soup kitchen, skills training center, etc. is a better option to give your money to.

Yes, all Christians are obligated to help and assist the poor.  But not all of us are called to do as Mother Teresa did when she would work hands-on by getting the poor off the streets.  Some are called to volunteer time and talent.  Some are called to give money to charities.  Some are called to give their entire life.  What is your call?  That is for you and God to talk about - for you to discern.

I hope this helps.


Jeanne said...

A nice post. I never give to actual panhandlers, because my experience working in New York City for 10 years showed me that some are not honest. There was one guy on the corner of 31st street whose sign changed weekly. A man with "no leg" rose from his blanket, removed the fake end from his 'stump', and walked away on two good legs one afternoon from out in front of a restaurant I used to frequent.

I give to the Franciscan St. Anthony's breadline in Manhattan, to our local food pantry, and to various Catholic charities; this way I know the money will go directly to the needy. I volunteer my talents for an organization that helps the elderly and handicapped children. Mother Theresa reminds me through her writing that we must start somewhere; we cannot help all, but we can certainly help some.

JumpsterGal said...

There are few panhandlers I actually hand money to. My comment on this question is to ask in prayer and give what charity you can but through the Church. As for the people you walk past, invite them to go visit the closest Catholic Church!

Melissa said...

Marcel, This is an amazingly helpful post! I sent it to a loved one who suffers from OCD and the part where you mention an overactive conscience really hit a cord with him and has given peace in his heart. Thank you immensely! God Bless your work here.

I also write to ask if you could post any encouraging thoughts on acceptance and healing, as I have a brother who suffers from Psoriasis that has affected his nails. As I tell him much of his obsession with this disorder is irrational, barely noticeable, because he has let is fester for years, it has grown deeply toward his core spirit and keep him idle and isolated from grabbing life and finding joy in life. He is a young man of 26 who has great potential but this hurdle has debilitated him from who God wants him to be and the growth and evolution we all seek as God's creations. Recently he has moved out of my parents house, from our hometown, landed a real job, and begun talking openly about this anxiety that has held him back for 4 years after graduating college. I am greatly proud that he has made this progress and we pray together for healing and faith to find a way out of this terror. He hides his hands when doing anything and has great terror when meeting or talking with people. Can you help with any words or counsel? Thank you.
in Jesus, Mother Mary, and Joseph