A lot of us grew up in places where homeless people didn’t live on the street. If we knew anyone who was homeless, it was probably through volunteer work, where we met people on our own terms. Of course this isn’t true for all Yalies, but I’d venture to guess it is accurate for a majority. Many of us never had to seriously think about how we interact with homeless individuals until we moved to New Haven.
Yet, despite the prevalence of these interactions for Yalies, the discourse on how to best respond remains muted. These often daily encounters make many people uncomfortable, but we choose to move on and forget. We don’t sit down and ponder what morality would dictate in these situations. There are all sorts of problems that bother us and that we set out to fix: gendered bigotry, summer storage, Yale-NUS. No less ink and thought and creative energy should be poured into what is such a frequent ethical concern.
I don’t want to live in a world where when somebody asks us for help our first thought is to dismiss the sincerity of that request. That is bad both for the person asking and the person who is being asked. The person asking you for money is a person. We can all talk about how the flower lady has a Blackberry, or the concern that these people are faking their plight or will use the money on drugs and alcohol. In the end of the day, however, we are facing a person who is asking for help. That should at least warrant an acknowledgement, an “I’m sorry, God bless you,” or “Have a good day.” Such acknowledgement validates the humanity of both people in the situation. Our discomfort may make us want to keep walking, but our own humanity demands we don’t.
I also don’t think considerations of how the money will be used matter all that much. There is a verse in the Bible that instructs “You shall not harden your heart or close your hand” (Deuteronomy 15:7) in your dealings with the needy. This is typically understood to mean that unless we teach our hearts to be open, we will never be able to open our hands. No matter how much our mind may understand the direness of someone’s circumstances, unless we have trained ourselves to give, we will find it very difficult to part with our money.
Yes, maybe some of the people you meet are looking to buy alcohol. But what are you using your money on? Probably alcohol. Besides, you don’t know. Maybe they’re going to buy food, or socks. People asking for money are often asking for nothing more than coins. These small sums can have the symbolic gesture of demonstrating you care, and building our own sensitivity to the suffering of other people. Judging other people favorably and with compassion are skills that need to be cultivated, and the benefit of exercising these emotions far outweighs the negativity of the chance that somebody will use your quarter on whiskey.
Money in general makes people uncomfortable. No group of friends has ever split the check at the end of a meal without some subtle unease. Yet I am always struck by how the significance of money changes in different contexts. If I am out eating with my friends and choosing between two items on a menu, a dollar difference won’t be the deciding factor in my choice. However, someone on the street asking me for a dollar will put me on guard. What if instead, when I was out, I paid attention to every dollar I could not spend, and then spent that money on charity? While I don’t advocate such careful watching, such thinking motivates me to always consider my needs against those I encounter, and usually motivates me to give.
As the recipients and seekers of grants and outside funding, Yale students tend to think of charity in the hundreds or millions of dollars. The idea that our contribution of 20 bucks towards some multi-billion-dollar organization would mean anything can seem pathetic, and discourage us from donating at all. Therefore, our age group typically gives very little in the way of charity. But giving is good for the soul. We must train our hands to give. At the very least, as ethical beings, we must never allow ourselves to ignore the human dignity of the individuals we interact with on any given day.
Shira Telushkin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .