This fall I was crossing Second Avenue against a sea of trench-coated pedestrians and as they parted to pass me there remained in their wake one scraggly man. Was he wrapped in a blanket? In my memory he was. He had a beard. He held a cup.

In the middle of Second Avenue he raised the cup into my face and looked into my eyes.

“Oh geez, that guy,” a friend who lives downtown said later. “He’s always on that block; that cup thing is his shtick.” Do you ever put anything in it? “God, no,” she said. “I give to charitable organizations. I used to give to panhandlers, but living downtown makes you jaded.” She told about the ragged mother with the two-bucks-shy-of-a-bus-ticket-to-see-her-daughter sob story, whom she later spied chugging rotgut in a doorway. “I can’t support that,” she said.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t inured to some degree, myself included. Among people I love are those who insist panhandlers pull in thousands of tax-free dollars a year, along with those who open their bleeding hearts to give to every beggar they see. I float in the vast space between: Sometimes giving change, sometimes sweeping past. Until recently my giving has been random, like when I dug deep last year to reward an injured vet with the best sign I’d ever seen: “Give me cash or I’ll vote for Romney.” 

Some hand out food, end running altogether the thorny bad-behavior issue. I tried it, giving away doggie bags sculpted into the foil swans you get in a certain kind of restaurant, but it felt aesthetically tone deaf and met with mixed success. “I’m gluten free,” one Belltown sad sack responded, which made me feel like a New Yorker cartoon. I bought some of those everything--free protein bars and kept a few in my purse. Some accepted them gratefully, some rejected them with scorn. 

Neither reaction sat well. My umbrage at their scorn you’ll surely understand: How dare you be ungrateful! But my reaction at their gratitude was odder, and oddly harder to bear. The first time I bought a street person a Starbucks sandwich I glowed, radiant with my own enlightenment: I have just improved the life of a poor unfortunate without unintentionally financing his self-destruction! Blech.

Somehow the gesture meant to meet a fellow traveler’s needs wound up arousing a patronizing superiority in me. I didn’t like that feeling, but it was familiar, from whenever people say that giving to individuals does nothing to address the underlying crisis of poverty. What could seem more reasonable, right? Fleeting relief versus lasting solution to homelessness: Who wouldn’t vote for the latter?

Honestly these days—I wouldn’t. I say that as someone who gives to poverty charities; who believes that finding long-term solutions is a vital measure of a civilized society. I say that also from here at year eight of King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which has left us with roughly the same number of homeless individuals as when the project began. It has made valuable gains, notably an increase in permanent low-income housing. But big institutional fixes are just that, big and institutional—and less about the pressing need of the present moment.

A couple years ago my church was debating whether to host the Nickelsville encampment, and I inclined toward the no vote. Supporting the encampment felt so stopgap, so frustratingly ad hoc. What if we took the resources it required and applied them instead to permanent long-term solutions? With weary patience the homelessness advocates explained: Well and good, those long-term solutions. But what about the guy who needs a shower, tonight? The woman who needs a secure place to take a nap, today? 

The ground truth of homelessness is urgency—the toilet or the safe sleeping place or the cigarette that one of my fellow Homo sapiens is screaming for this instant. Individuals know what they need; so much that the hot new trend in philanthropy to developing nations, as exemplified by groups like Give-Directly, eschews large cash-soaking infrastructure in favor of wiring money directly to impoverished individuals. Despite loud controversy it has met with unlikely success. In general, recipients use the money wisely. They know what they need.

Sure, Africa is not inner-city America, and $500 can buy a springboard to prosperity in a way that 50 cents cannot. But its directness provides a model of charity that honors the agency, and thus the dignity, of the recipient. It gives him a choice. Sure, he might compound his troubles by choosing a drink or a fix—but am I really going to judge him for that? I who have never slept on cold concrete in the rain? I who daily squander money on lattes and cable television and other needless pleasures? My decision to give directly to street wretches will not be everyone’s, but here’s why it’s mine: I frankly can’t think of anyone who needs a drink more.

So my new policy is giving what I can, when it feels right. Who knows whether it will improve a single life. I can say this: When everyone who asks is a potential recipient of my giving, I see them better. Like that Second Avenue beggar. I clinked a quarter into his cup, yeah, but by some calculus it may be infinitely more important that I learned he has green eyes.


This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Seattle Met.

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