How to respond to the poor (and how not to)

Not long ago I was in Oaxaca City with a mission group that was led by two priests. We had paused by some church or other when we noticed an old woman on the steps. She was tiny, as most Oaxacans are, and she was begging.

Maybe she asked for money, maybe she didn’t, but the older priest, the one whose Spanish wasn’t so good, but whose heart was wide open, sat down beside her. It was an entirely spontaneous act–he was simply responding in his role as priest, a role that is never far from these guys’ consciousness. Just like we never forget our role as parent.

He chatted with her for a few moments–she probably told him her story. I’d seen that happen again and again in this country where the old always had a story; they loved telling it to the Anglo priest, and it was usually sad. He said a prayer and blessed her. He probably touched her–laid his hand on her head or took her hand–I can’t remember. He left her with a peaceful smile and with something more meaningful than money.

*     *     *

I’ve just come from six weeks in New York City, where there is misery of all sorts–addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill, and screwups of every color. The misery lives side-by-side with people like me. People who just want to get from point A to B without having our person or our psyche messed with. So people put on earphones; they stare at the floor; they don’t make eye contact; and they don’t respond in any way to the most insane occurences. Someone begins a rant on the subway–no one moves. Someone turns a somersault on the floor–no response.

As with most big cities and poor countries, the need is raw, ugly, and overwhelming.

This environment challenged me. I wasn’t about to pull a Mother Teresa number. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s not my calling. Besides, the poverty here is different. You just don’t go around picking up people from the sidewalk.

man under umbrella-NYC

Or do you? For three days, I walked by a man lying on the sidewalk on my way to the hospital to see my daughter. This was near Columbus Circle–a busy, touristy area–home to Time Warner and CNN. Right next to the fruit stall. Gray, frizzy hair and bare skin stuck out from a filthy blanket. He was barefoot and his feet were indescribable. He would sometimes switch to a different patch of sidewalk to get out of the sun, but I never saw him move. Not in the heat, not in the drizzly rain.

He bothered my conscience. How could I, a fellow human being, literally step over this person who seemed to be dying on the street? But what could I do? I couldn’t call the department that handles people dying on the sidewalk. I couldn’t pick him up and take him home. I walked by for two days, then out of disgust at my own temerity, I put together a little care package for a man, probably without teeth who was lying on the sidewalk–water, fruit, power bar. I just thought I’d leave it beside him, and I was even nervous about that.

He wasn’t there. Maybe there IS such a city department or maybe he died. But he was a reproach to my humanity and my conscience.

Two more times, I had close encounters with abject misery, and both times I looked away, pretended not to see. Truth be told, I was repulsed. Nauseated, even.

I wrestle with how to respond to these situations. What ought I to do as a believer and a member of the same species? What is my responsibility to my fellow human? Who is my brother? I still don’t know, but I’m returning to the city this winter for several months, and I’d like to go with greater wisdom and an lighter conscience.

What I do know: Money is easy, and it rarely solves anything. Human compassion and contact is hard, but that’s what helps and heals. I saw that in action in Oaxaca.

I need to hear your thoughts.

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16 Responses to How to respond to the poor (and how not to)

  1. Amy 25 September, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Hi Kate,
    Looking forward to you coming back to NYC – I know Esther and Drew and baby Toby all miss you!

    There’s a lot to respond here…I’ll pick just a couple of points. First to your question of what to do: yes there are many organizations in the city that take care of the homeless, and in particular homeless with medical needs. I just learned recently that if you call 311 you will be connected to one of these organizations and if you give them the location of the person in need they will come and administer care. I heard this from someone who has done it more than 100 times, who has actually waited around to see what happened. He said that someone arrived in less than 30 minutes.

    More generally – try not to give in to the idea that New Yorkers are a soul-less bunch who just put on their “city face,” who don’t connect with each other, protect each other or demonstrate compassion for each other often. This may have been true at some point, but it has not born out in my experience. There are too many stories to share. People do call the police when they hear screaming..they also bang on doors, yell out their windows “Are you OK?”, they volunteer in homeless shelters, donate “interview clothes” to help people starting that delicate journey back to their own feet, give food and money on the subways, hand their leftovers from the restaurant to the guy on the corner. If someone is ignoring the guy singing or dancing on the subway it’s only because they have seen that guy 1000 times and have probably smiled, clapped, given a couple bucks 100 out of those times, maybe more. People get stuck underground together and they talk, they commiserate, they laugh. Sometimes they decide it’s time to take on that obnoxious guy who subjects you to a tirade about how you are going to burn in hell, even though they know he is likely insane and not open to discussion.

    So…anyway, I could go on and on, but this is a big city with millions of people who have hundreds if not thousands of forced interactions a day. The vast majority of those interactions are kind or at least polite. Many of them are inspiring. Even if the acts are small… someone returns a cell phone found in a cab or mails someone their lost wallet with every penny intact, hundreds people turn out to help a stranger look for their lost dog (happened to me), they put their arm on the shoulder of someone crying in a cafe or a subway car and ask them if they are ok. As for what I do when I am confronted with someone who is suffering -most of the time I try to make eye contact, and smile if it seems appropriate. If they smile at my baby, I take his hand and make him wave and I say hello. If someone stinks of urine I don’t move my seat, and I don’t hold my nose or make a comment. I try to remember that they are someone’s child, and ask myself how would I want someone to treat Quinn or Vaughn if they ended up like that? The main question I ask myself in those moments is, what can I do so that this person knows that I see them as a human being? Of course sometimes I just put my head in my book or close my eyes, sometimes I battle with myself over whether to say or do more and then the person gets off the train and I wonder what opportunity I just missed. Now that I know about the 311 option, I will definitely do that.

    Finally, pretty sure the example of Kitty Genovese has been mostly disproved (the part about 38 people hearing screams and not doing anything).

    If you go looking for the worst in people, believe me you will find it! But the opposite is also true…if you go searching for the good you will find much, much more of it. I have never felt more connected and cared for in any city than I have in NYC – now here for about 7 years. Give it a chance : )

    • Kate 26 September, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

      Amy, thanks SO much. I feel I have a guide to compassionate living in the city, and I’m glad I have a chance to do it right when I go back. It really is all about acknowledging our common humanity, which you and Novena and the priest I mentioned do so naturally and gracefully.
      I’m so grateful that you took the time to compose such a beautiful response. It gives me hope that I can do better, too. We’ll be in touch.

    • Stacey 4 June, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

      This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. Actually brought a tear to my eye. What a lovely person.

      When I was in New York in 2007 I was surprised at how nice and accomodating people were. I was eighteen, first time overseas and both in love with and initimidated by New York. I had heard that the people were mean and heartless, but I only had to look at a map for someone to walk up and offer me directions.

      People like you make me smile, and I’m so thankful that even though I’ve seen some horrible things here in America, I’ve also seen some amazing examples of kindness and compassion. You’re right-you just have to open your eyes to see them.

  2. Anne 15 September, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    Giving food is what I used to do in Berlin, too. But there they had a project for the homeless to help themselves – a newspaper/magazine, actually more than one, that they worked on and sold. Those who weren’t able to write could only sell it. They had to buy copies at a very low price and then sold them and could keep the money they made on it. I think this is a good concept, which of course won’t help all the homeless or just poor people out there, but it’s a good approach. From what I’ve experienced, it’s really hard for those people to beg, at least for those who don’t want to spend your money on drugs or alcohol. And by actually working for their little money they feel better – not so much out of the system, I guess (we’ve talked about narrow minded, stickin’-to-the-system-people when you were here). They would always be thankful for a sandwich or an apple along with buyin’ a copy from them. Some of them even managed to get back into a somewhat “normal” life – as we would call it. I am sure there’s projects like that in the States, too – and I am sure they are looking for volunteers, which might help you to help when you get back to NYC.

    • Kate 16 September, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

      IS there a system like this in the US? I’m not sure. I know there are many programs intended to prepare people to find jobs and some that may offer jobs to the unemployed, but I’m wondering if a program like that would work here. Would the homeless be glad to be earning their own money, or would they feel stigmatized by selling the “poor person’s” newspaper? Would they prefer to beg? I’m wondering if this is a difference in our culture/work ethic?

      Volunteering might be very good for me. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Anne. Interesting points and a good suggestion.

      • Dana 25 December, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

        Homeless newspapers exist in the United States. If you google it you’ll find all kinds of stuff. I would guess the vast majority of them do want work and just can’t find it for a variety of reasons. For one thing, if you don’t have a home address, forget getting a job. And even if you’re in a shelter that lends you their address (it happens), if your employer figures out it’s a shelter, that can make your continued employment dicey. I once heard a story of a woman fired by a doctor’s office because she was living in a shelter. Very not cool. I’m not saying it will always happen but I don’t think housing status is a protected status in the United States. (I’m doing a quick rough Googling and not finding anything encouraging.)

        What would really help is if more of these folks could just start their own businesses, which is how people in developing countries do it, but microlending is still just barely getting a foothold here and the big-box stores compete with so much that a poor person could do on a shoestring. So that’s where the homeless papers come in.

        • Kate 26 December, 2011 at 11:26 am #

          Thanks for your very thoughtful response, Dana. Probably no one answer, nor an easy answer. I didn’t know about the homeless papers. And I think we can agree that microlending is dead for now.

          Merry Christmas, Dana. Thanks for reading.

  3. novena forbes 15 September, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    I think you know what to do… just need the courage to do it. Think of them as being one of your dearest friends or family. Dirt can be washed away. I once took a homeless man 103 yrs old, scrubbed him clean, put some clean clothes on him and he was “quite handsome.” Didn’t even look homeless. Turned out to be the most unusual man I ever met. He was Native American and had spent 40 years as a scout for the US Army. He knew Douglas McCarther, President Ike and many others. You never know whose shoes God may be wearing.

  4. Marcia Davis 14 September, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    I hadn’t read Prentiss’ post before I wrote mine. Love your story about Frank!

  5. Marcia Davis 14 September, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    Kate, what a thought-provoking post. Thank you for raising this issue with your readers.
    I grew up outside of NYC and have probably been there hundreds of times. My dad worked in Lower Manhattan and he’s the one I got my street-smarts from. “Put on your city face,” he’d say. “Don’t make eye contact.” As a commuter, he had to adopt this behavior to stay safe every day. But he also taught me the compassionate side of city dwelling. While he wouldn’t give panhandlers money because many of them are addicts and cash would only enable them, he would offer to buy them food. It’s one step closer to getting involved than many people are probably comfortable with, but at least it’s a way to help and possibly make a difference. Which is why I smiled when you mentioned the care package that you weren’t able to deliver.
    Do you remember the story of Kitty Genovese? She was the woman who was murdered in NYC and all her neighbors heard her screams but did nothing. That story sticks with me since I first read it as a freshman in high school.
    Staying safe in a city is imperative, but staying connected to humanity is also a must. Somehow, we just need to learn to blend our behaviors.

    • Kate 16 September, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

      It’s that balance thing–compassion and common sense. I suspect, however, that the saints err on the side of compassion.
      New Yorkers have that “city face” to a T. I saw it everywhere, and it’s contagious, because I recognized it on my own face as well.
      I lived in the inner city of Detroit for 8 years, but felt more comfortable there, for some reason, maybe because it was familiar–I volunteered and knew the homeless and halfway house people. The toughness in New York unnerved me.
      I totally remember the Kitty Genovese incident, and I used that story when I taught student about social proof (see my next blog in a few days). That incident caused decades of moral soul-searching here–as well it should have–until worse things happened, like Columbine and the OK city bombing.
      Thanks, Marcia.

  6. Prentiss 14 September, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    This is a tough one. I worked in downtown Seattle for a number of years and passed by people begging all the time. One particular guy just stood there with his hat out – no talk, no chatter, nothing. A co-worker and I went to a burger joint for lunch one day and he bought an extra. I asked him why. He said it was for “Frank” the name we gave the guy who just stood there. When we walked by Frank on the way back to work, my friend held out the bag, Frank took it and smiled, and we walked on. I asked my friend why he bought burgers for the beggars instead of giving them money. He said that if he gave them food he knew his money was spent on something reasonably healthy, and not on drugs or alcohol. After that, I bought burgers – and muffins, and cookies, and meatloaf sandwiches, etc. – for any number of beggars until I left Seattle. Some refused the food and asked for money instead (I declined). Some swore at me. But the vast majority of the people I encountered were grateful for the food.

    • Kate 16 September, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

      Such a cool story. There are angels everywhere–as well as ordinary people doing their bit to make the world a better place.
      It’s my turn to pay it forward; I just needed better preparation (and maybe a kick in the pants) to respond more compassionately in New York. Glad I have another chance.
      Thanks for sharing, Prentiss.

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