Coming face to face with poverty

Opinion: Columns

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John Barrett

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I knew at once he was a panhandler. The slightly disheveled look, the bulging satchel over his shoulder, the tattered anorak covering multiple layers of mismatched clothing were all definite clues, but it was the strategic location that he had selected to ply his trade that confirmed it.

Carefully positioning himself at the base of the steps leading up to the doors of St. Edmund Church gave him a tactical advantage over the small but potentially rewarding group arriving for the 8:30 a.m. Mass. Close to the traffic light he also controlled the crosswalk population that sought to gain access to the east side of Oak Park Avenue.

It was the usual spiel. He was homeless, had spent the night sleeping outside because the PADS shelter was full again. He needed some money so he could get breakfast and potential shelter from the cold and threatening wet November day that was bringing with it a warning foretaste of winter.

I remembered the cautions in the newspaper. Giving cash to panhandlers in Oak Park was now officially frowned on. It encouraged them to maintain their current lifestyle and inhibited them from seeking the help they needed to solve their underlying problem. They were likely to spend the money on drink and drugs — money that would be much better spent by the numerous charities that are in the business of improving the sad plight that had befallen these poor souls. Besides, giving money would only encourage more panhandling, which was not the image the village wished to convey at this time of year — not good for business during the holiday season.

As I recalled, the recommendation by the village authorities was to give him a palm card — a pre-printed card that contained all of the information he would need to obtain help — with the address and phone numbers of all the local agencies that could help him. I had no such card with me, but I started to tell him of the locations of the various agencies I knew about.

As I continued to talk, it started to rain. He listened carefully to me telling him why I would not give him money to buy the food he needed and why I would not allow him shelter from the rain that was slowly but steadily soaking through his tattered anorak.

All at once I was filled with a deep sense of shame. I was about to go into the church for Mass. I professed that I was a Christian — a Catholic. That I believed we were all made in the image and likeness of God. That it is in the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed that we fully see God's image. That we are called on to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and welcome the stranger.

When I gave him the $5 bill, he thanked me profusely. He told me he was ashamed to be poor and homeless, that he was an immigrant from Latvia, that he could speak four languages and had recently lost his job as a translator. I suddenly realized it was not for me to judge whether he was telling the truth or not. I finally saw him for what he really was — a poor soul. He was asking me to help him, and I had the ability to do so then and there.

As he tried to tuck away the money, I noticed his hands. Red from the cold with swollen knuckle joints, he was having difficulty folding the bill to place it in his pocket. It was clear he needed warm gloves far more than I did.

At first he refused my offer. When he finally did accept my gloves, his hands were so stiff from the cold that I had to help him put the gloves on.

As I turned to climb the steps he suddenly began to cry. He hugged me with his newly gloved hands and told me nobody believes him when he tells his story. He assured me it was all true. That all he wants is a chance to make it through this difficult patch in his life. That what happened to him could happen to anybody.

Are we to deny help to those who, for whatever reason, need it? Am I to sit in judgment of every person who asks for my help? To give them a Palm Card when what they need are gloves? Are we to focus on the systemic problem of the injustice of poverty and homelessness at the expense of denying a simple act of immediate charity?

As I entered the church, it occurred to me that I had given him his palm card after all.

Reader Comments

4 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Jesus from Oak Park  

Posted: December 1st, 2011 10:21 AM

"Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you to eat? When did I see you naked and clothe you?"

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: November 30th, 2011 11:27 AM

John Barrett, it was an act of kindness that you did, and since you really came across someone who really did accept help, you had an opportunity to decide if you would attend Mass, or continue your help to put this person in contact with the help that can not only bring him shelter and food, but can help train him and find him a job. With that help, there would be then 2 people, both you and him to help more. The acts of kindness can multiply. You may get your chance next week to do that.

Carol O'Connor Ford from Oak Park  

Posted: November 30th, 2011 11:18 AM

Mr. Barrett your viewpoint article brought tears to my eyes. How happy The Lord must be in you! We are called not to judge but to love as God loves. He asks us but 2 things ...love Him and love one another. If you truly do the former the latter is a breeze. Hard to imagine Christ encountering a hurting soul and handing him a "palm card" . God Bless You.

John from Oak Park from Oak Park  

Posted: November 30th, 2011 7:43 AM

And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me. Thank you. Sometimes we forget what it means to be a Christian. Many of the folks who profess to be "Christian" wouldn't even look at or talk to a homeless person, as it would be beneath them. They have theirs, they're 'saved', why do they need to deal with someone down on their luck?

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