A couple of the sandwich shops I go to have punch-cards (buy ten, get one free). For the last year I’ve been giving my filled punch cards to the same homeless man. He’s a little shy, but I do know his name, and he does appreciate the cards. The first thing I ever gave him was a calling-card with $25 on it – he really appreciated that. I knew he also took the bus, so I’ve given him pre-paid metro tickets. I’ve thought about buying him a gift card to a grocery store.
I used to work at a coffee shop, and our day-old pastries would either go home with us or go in the trash. I started a ritual of taking the leftovers around to homeless folks every night; it usually took less than thirty minutes of my time and I got to know some amazing people – real personalities with real stories.
One cold, November night I picked up about a dozen blankets from a thrift store and went around the downtown handing them out to anyone who wanted one.
There are ways of connecting with the people that panhandle without giving them cash (and if you’re paying attention, over time you can tell who the genuinely needy people are – I’ve seen Paul sleeping on the street enough times to know he’s in it for real).
I asked Paul why he didn’t go to one of the Shelters, and his complaint was that they all want something in return. If it’s tied to a church they want you to go to church. At the very least there are always strict rules about curfew. While talking to him I got a strong sense of how difficult it would be to give up my freedom, my me-ness, for a handout.
Paul is not very verbally articulate. He may be able to do physical labor, but he’s also not very young. I don’t know what the future holds for this man, but I think about it often. No family, no friends, living handout to handout; I would be dead from the stress and loneliness.