It was the first real cold day of the fall; the type of day that reminded you that August was lone gone and December would be here before you realized it. It was so cold, I’d bundled my whole family up in our winter coats, instead of our lighter fall jackets, and still found myself wishing I’d remembered to dig my gloves out of the closet.

We were pulling into the church parking lot when we saw them – a homeless man, his wife, and their two children. They were standing on the corner, the man holding up a sign asking for help. The older daughter, who looked to be the same age as my oldest, was huddled up against her mother’s side, wearing a coat and a scarf wrapped tightly around her neck to keep out the late-fall chill; their younger child was in a stroller that looked like it had seen better days. As we pulled up next to them, the mother and I locked eyes. I saw the exhaustion and the shame, but I also thought I saw something else… was it hope?

I never did figure it out… because that’s when I turned away.

Homelessness In America

The latest numbers on the homeless in America are sobering. The National Alliance to End Homelessness published a report in January 2012 that showed a strange dichotomy. While the number of homeless men, women, and children in the U.S. has gone down since 2009 – there were roughly 7,000 fewer homeless men, women, and children in the U.S. by the end of 2011 – the statistics didn’t tell the whole story:

  • a 13 percent increase in the number of American families sharing a living space with another family
  • a 22 percent jump in the number of Americans spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing and living below the poverty line
  • 9 states that saw a double-digit jump in the percentage of homeless residents

The problem could have been much worse, but part of 2009 stimulus package passed by Congress led to the creation of the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which funneled $1.5 billion to help nearly a three-quarters of a million at-risk and homeless individuals find a place to stay.

Why I Turned Away

I consider myself a compassionate person. I donate to my church, I volunteer in a soup kitchen once a month, I contribute to a handful of charities near and dear to my heart.

And yet… I turned away from a family in need.

Why did I do it?

Oddly enough, as we drove by, my husband and I found ourselves criticizing the homeless man for dragging his family – specifically his children – out in the cold to panhandle. It sounds heartless – no, it is heartless – to judge the homeless, but let’s admit it: most of us has done something similar. Maybe you haven’t handed your spare change to the homeless woman on the corner near the mall because you assumed she’d use it to buy liquor. Or maybe you turned away from the homeless guy on the street because you worried he’d follow you, harass you, or ask you for more. So many of us are guilty of making these snap judgments about the homeless, basing our reactions to them and interactions with them on assumptions that we have no way of justifying because we simply don’t take the time.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

How are we to end homelessness if people like me – a woman who says she is a Christian, yet turns away from the poorest and most vulnerable among us – turn away from those who need help?

We justify it by saying there’s a public safety net for people like that – food stamps, that aforementioned government re-housing program, unemployment insurance, medicaid – and yet there’s a huge portion of our electorate that wants to slash funding for these programs. These voters, and the politicians whose policies they support, argue that compassionate Americans will donate more to charities if we cut taxes and put more money in their pockets.

But if you’re like me, you self-select your charities. My non-profits of choice? The Ronald McDonald House and a crisis center for abused women and their children. How on earth are those charities going to help a family like the one I saw standing outside my church?

It’s such a complicated question, and I know I can’t find a solution on my own; none of us can. It’s a national problem, and it requires a national solution. It requires lawmakers that can not only identify the problem, but find a way to relate to it, to find a way to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.

And yet…

I can’t help but regret my decision to turn away. I can’t help but thinking that I just gave up my chance to make a difference, however small.

Reader, do you ever give money – directly (not through charity) – to the homeless? Why or why not?

And, what do you think about charitable giving? Are YOUR charitable donations helping to end homelessness?