Beggars On Our Streets

When I lived for six months in the Philippines, I got used to seeing beggars on the streets. When you stopped at an intersection they would come out into the street and tap on your car window with an open hand. Many were in filthy clothes, without shoes, and were missing teeth. Some women carried a child in their arms. They were poor, very needy, and hard to ignore.

In the past few years, begging has become a familiar sight right where I live in Portland, Oregon. I see them mostly at the freeway entrances with their signs that read “Homeless. Anything helps,” “A disabled veteran,” “A homeless mother. God bless you,” “Brain injury. Need help.” I recently counted seven of these unfortunate people lined up on either side of a freeway entrance during a Friday rush hour. One street corner in Portland has become the favorite site of an elderly lady with an old fashioned hat and a parasol. She sits on a stool with her sign, “Senior needs help.”

More recently I have noticed that some of these people will smile and wave to get your attention and establish contact. When I see them on the corner I usually get in the other lane and avoid eye contact. I am embarrassed that I ignore them. As I drive away I have wondered, “How should a Christian respond?”

I have tried various approaches. At times I have bought them food. Others I know have passed out coupons good for a sandwich at a nearby fast-food establishment. My son decided to start making simple lunches to carry in the car and pass out to those asking for help. While there were some expressions of appreciation and the occasional “God bless you,” he discovered that most of those he wanted to help were more interested in receiving money. They would look in the lunch bag, remove the can of soda and return the rest.

I just returned from an errand and passed another beggar as I got off the freeway to return to campus. I looked straight ahead and avoided eye contact with the two young men standing there holding an empty gas can. Maybe their need was real and I could have helped them buy gas. But I thought that the gas can could have been a ploy to get money for drugs.

Back in my office eating my lunch, I now feel a deep concern. I’m concerned for the unfortunate people who have lost all sense of shame and are willing to stand in public asking commuters to turn over some of their hard earned money. But I am more concerned that I seem to be losing my compassion. I felt compassion for the beggars in the Philippines. I don’t feel that same compassion for a woman I regularly see with different signs telling different stories, often with a backpack as if she were traveling.

Besides feeling guilty, what can I do? I can give. Portland has a number of non-profit charities that specialize in helping the homeless and destitute people. When I send them a check I know that this money will go for food and shelter, not for drugs. I can pray. God has compassion for these unfortunate souls who are made in His image. God also sees the same people I see standing at the freeway entrances. I know He has compassion for them. I can pray that God will give me His compassion. I can be thankful. I live in a four bedroom house with well stocked cupboards and clean bathrooms. I don’t deserve this comfort. All that I enjoy reflects God’s goodness and grace. I can thank God for His blessings and be a good steward of these resources.

Is there more that I can do? Sure. But I’m looking for direction. As a Christian I want to be responsive to the Spirit’s leading as I become more aware of the needs of those around me. But most of all I want to make sure I do not become hardened and lose something so close to the heart of God as compassion.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).

6 thoughts on “Beggars On Our Streets

  1. Nice article Carl — and a good perspective. I remain convinced that Ecclesiastes chapter 11 suggests that we give abundantly whenever we can and leave *all* the consequences of our generosity to God’s providence. Who knows — maybe He’ll use that money you gave the beggar who purchases a bottle of whiskey the realization that he has indeed hit bottom, and can now finally seek the grace of God.

    1. Thanks, Rick, for your comments. I am familiar with the approach you suggest–leaving all the consequences of our generosity to God’s providence. That was advocated by some missionaries I met in the Philippines. And I guess that works with small change. But I wonder if my money might be better invested in an organization like Portland Rescue Mission which provides food and housing for homeless people. But you are right! God is sovereign and can use any gift to accomplish His providential purposes.

  2. Yes Carl! I often feel the same way when I see people asking for help at the intersections. I also know handing out money often perpetuates a lifestyle with few answers for a way out. I have chosen to get involved and support the Union Gospel Mission in my area. Besides clothing, food, and shelter, the Mission also provides answers for the way out mentally, socially, and spiritually. Of course I believe one’s spiritual condition represents the greatest need in life, but many of the destitute need help with addictions, social skills, education, health needs, how to find and keep a job, a chance and time to heal from abuse and other tragedies in life. The Mission I volunteer at addresses all these and many other areas of need. I know this sounds like a promo for UGM; It is and I’m ok with that. I have seen so many transformed lives that have found real answers there. My suggestion to anyone feeling a conviction to help the destitute is to volunteer and support a charitable organization that reaches out to such as these. Volunteers are a much needed resourse at these places and the time spent reaching out to someone there will change your life too. Thanks for addressing the issue Carl.

  3. The problem with private charities is the same as with government charity – they have expenses and not all of the money gets to the people who need it. Jesus said “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.” Luke 6:30 When you give to those that ask, 100% goes to the person in need.

  4. Carl, this is definitely a tough one but it encourages me that you struggle with it as do I. I have a friend and co-worker who says “look at their shoes” … if a beggar is wearing old, worn out shoes or no shoes at all, they probably are in dire need. Also, I like what you say about being responsive to Spirit’s leading. When I was living in La Grande, Spirit let me to stop and search out the reality of a beggar there looking for gas. Turned out that when I got to know him and built the slightest bit of a 5 minute relationship with him, I realized he truly was in need. He needed to go back home to Kansas. I went so far as to have him show me his Kansas driver’s license (his plates were Oregon plates…somebody else’s car) and then it was my joy to fill his car with gas enough to get him to Boise. I think the key is sometimes I am a) too busy or distracted to listen to Spirit and b) not willing to build even the slightest relationship with “a stranger” to enable me to discern their true needs. Jesus was never too busy to do these things!! Thanks for the reminder, Carl!

    1. Thanks, Victor! Good to hear form you. Yes, I have had similar experiences of getting to know someone a bit, finding out their need and then been able to help. I think the key is to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. Sometimes I’m just in too big a hurry to take the time to discover those real needs.

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