Enabling Charity

panhandleA blogger that I follow wrote about something that happened to her a few days back.  In a nutshell: a street person who looked like an addict asked her for some money to buy bread. She offered to buy the bread for this person, but that offer was refused. She was wondering if she had handled this situation correctly.

This reminded me of something similar that happened to me last year. Someone asked me for some money for food as I was returning home from walking my dogs. I told him to hang on, went into the house and returned with a small bag of tortillas and an easy-to-open tin of tuna, which he accepted. A short while later when I was heading off to town, I saw the unopened tin and tortillas tossed off to the side of the road a little ways up from my front gate. I guess he wasn’t as hungry as he claimed.

The question is, do I give people money who ask for it, even if it seems obvious that it’s probably going toward the purchase of a small rock or bottle? Am I not enabling them in their addiction? As someone in recovery I am torn.  I may not have lived on the streets, but I realize that had I not received the gift of recovery when I did, that is where I would have ended up.  I do know what it is like to need that fix of whatever. I do know the need to have something in me to calm my nerves and stop my hands from shaking. In those moments, I didn’t need food. What I really needed right then was my ‘stuff’. Without it I could hardly function even at the most basic level.  I may have been somewhat hungry, but my addiction was front and centre. Until that craving was fulfilled, everything else was in second place.

That’s why it’s hard to answer the question.  On the one hand, I don’t wish to contribute to the further destruction of an individual. On the other hand, I know the intensity, the yearning, the incessant pleading of addiction.  Why did this person asked for food, when money for his ‘stuff’ was what he really needed? Probably to sound better and make his appeal more palatable. Probably because it worked. Coins for food doesn’t sound like I’m enabling someone in their addiction.

Early in my recovery a fellow approached me.  “Listen man,” he said.  “I’m an addict.  I need money to get some shit.”  I was taken aback by his honesty, and thanked him for it. It was a novel and honest approach and it worked. I gave him the equivalent of about a dollar and reminded him that it he wanted to get off the roller coaster he was on I would be happy to talk to him.  But his ‘need’ had to be fulfilled and he was off.

All of this reminds me of a story I heard years ago from a Jesuit priest who lived in one of the sketchier neighbourhoods of New York City.  Every day when he left his apartment he was bombarded by people panhandling on the street. Should he give money? Who should he give it to? To how many should he give? He came upon a wise solution. He put a dollar bill into the pocket of his jacket when he left for work.  The first person who asked him for money that morning got the dollar. He didn’t ask the reason why this person needed the money, nor judge that his clothes were too clean or too dirty to deserve that dollar. He just gave it away.  The priest said that it wasn’t his responsibility to judge people, their circumstances, or their lifestyle.  His responsibility was to be charitable to others, to offer his time, talent and treasure to all people.

This is an approach that works for me.  I’ve been struggling with giving money to an individual when it is obvious what it going to be used to buy. I know what they are going through. I can relate to their suffering. So I’ve determined that each day I will give the equivalent of one dollar to the first person who asks me for it. After that, anyone else who wants food or bus fare, I’ll buy it for them if they really want it and if I have it to spend.  It’s a solution that works for me and I offer it as one of many possible solutions for others who are struggling with this question.

Here’s a link to the original article by Candace Bisram in her blog “Pocketful of Smiles” that inspired me to write this today.




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