Growing up in small-town Iowa, I'm honestly not sure I had ever seen - or at least known I had seen - a homeless person. They were there I'm sure. I don't think any community is immune to homelessness, but the majority of my city was middle class, white people, and you had to know where to look for the poverty - something my teenage-self never cared to do.
I've lived in the Twin Cities for five years now, and I quickly learned I couldn't avoid poverty if I wanted to. When I worked, I got on the interstate every day, and that meant passing two homeless people twice a day, if not more. These days, I don't leave the house by car as much, but I still see them. Running errands, going to the pediatrician, even taking walks, they are there with their signs, "Veteran," "Anything helps," or the one that truly hits close to home for me now, "Have kids."
In the five years I've lived here, I've never given money to any of them. Not one.
Growing up, I was taught, "You can't take something you haven't earned," and "You've got to work for what you've got." I heard stories of how if you give a homeless person money, they're just going to turn around and feed their addictions - like paying for over-priced cigarettes and booze - and not care if their child is starving right next to them. Or of con-men pretending to be homeless while in reality they are going home to their apartment every night, pulling in $40,000 a year just by standing outside for a few hours a day.
Somewhere, somehow along the way in our culture, I had been taught to be wary of homeless people, to be scared of them - and to not help them.
On one corner I often have to stop to wait for the light to turn green, giving me plenty of time to avoid reading their signs, or worse, making eye contact. But I still see them. I've started to recognize them. The man with a golden retriever. The man with the plaid coat. The woman with duck tape over her boots. I've been getting to know them all these years, without ever wanting to.
Late last fall, I saw eight homeless people in one day. There's a church near that corner, so Sundays are always the busiest days of the week. On our way to our own church in downtown I saw the usuals, and some new ones, and for some reason, I took the time to really look. And then I started thinking about what example we're setting for Eli. And that day, something in me twisted and morphed and moved in a way I never thought possible and I said to Mike, "I want to help them, but don't want to give them money."
We left it at that, went to church, said our prayers, sang our songs, and came home, but I couldn't shake the tug.
A few days later, I read this post from An Inviting Home that spoke to my heart and sparked an idea in my head. I ran the idea past Mike, he agreed, and I drove to a Bruegger's Bagels that's within walking distance of that corner purchasing a handful of $10 gift cards to keep in my car's console. Just enough to allow a person to warm up and buy breakfast or lunch for themselves and one other person - such as a child.
I'll never forget when I passed out my first card. I was on my way to the grocery store and saw one of the regulars. I was all geared up to do it, but realized I was in the far lane and thought I shouldn't make him walk across the road just to reach me - so I should wait for another time.
Yeah, I feel gross just typing that out.
I got on the interstate, purchased my groceries, and returned home, this time I was three lanes away from the nearest homeless person. When I turned to look at who it was, I realized it was the same guy from before. He had switched corners.
I felt like God was teaching me a lesson.
I was nervous. It went against everything I had ever thought I knew or would do. I took a deep breath, rolled down my window, handed him a card and told him to go warm up. He smiled and waved and hurried back to his corner. All in all, it was quite anticlimactic, but I turned and continued on my way, feeling like I had just conquered a fear.
As long as we live here, I know the homeless will be a part of my daily life. And Eli will not grow up as I did - hardly knowing what a homeless person was - but he will grow up being as familiar with them as he is with skyscrapers and the Vikings and the Stone Arch bridge. At some point, I'm sure he will ask me who they are and why they're standing on the corner.
And now, I'll be able to tell him that we don't know a lot about them. We don't know their names, or their story or exactly why they are standing there, but that doesn't matter because we don't need to know everything about someone to help them. All we know is that they need help - and because we have been blessed, we can bless them too.
We can do something - even if it's just giving them a little red gift card.
pssst. Another idea I've heard of people doing is creating a "winter gift bag" to hand out. Socks, stocking hats, Hot Hands, chap stick and more are put into a bag and handed out. I would imagine this would be a very welcome gift in the middle of a frigid Minnesota winter. I'm thinking I may do this around Christmastime next year.