It happens to all of us. We are walking down the streets of New Haven talking on the phone or alongside some friends and out of the corner of our eye, we see him. He is wearing disheveled clothes, looks like he has not showered in months and is holding a cup. You look at him, and inevitably hear the question: “Can you spare some change?”
What is the right thing to do? Should you give money to the homeless man or woman asking for help?
Many of us who live in New Haven encounter these questions every day, but few of us take the time to develop a clear and coherent personal policy. Recently, I have decided that I simply cannot give. I have decided this for a few reasons. First, giving perpetuates the incentives for individuals to stand on street corners begging or panhandling. Second, multiple studies indicate that 80 percent of the money given to people on the street goes to alcohol, drugs or lottery tickets. Finally, as far as I can tell based on my experience in the New Haven community, there are enough soup kitchens and food pantries in New Haven to meet the homeless’s most basic needs.
But I don’t feel justified just turning my head and walking away. I am an Orthodox rabbi who strives to live by the values and laws of the Jewish tradition, which espouses a strong ethos of providing for the poor of one’s city. The ethical encounter described above is therefore exceptionally painful. A tug-of-war erupts between my heart, my head and my hands. My instinct is to try to alleviate the immediate suffering before my eyes, but I know the donation might encourage, rather than relieve, the downward spiral of homelessness. This is the moral dilemma that tugs at my soul.
My faith tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the likeness of God, and this compels me to consider each individual’s inherent dignity. I feel that, as a rabbi, my calling is to use my gifts to ennoble those around me. The homeless person is no exception. He needs material things to help turn his life around, but he also needs a boost in honor and self-worth, both of which can come, at least in part, from the unexpected kindness of a stranger.
Living in New Haven and occasionally strolling across the Green has forced me to develop my own approach to this far-too-frequently encountered conundrum. My approach has many shortcomings, but it has provided me with an honorable and compassionate framework within which to operate.
If I have a few minutes, I ask the person asking for money: “Can I buy you something to eat?” If the person agrees, I accompany him to the closest food store and buy him a meal or some groceries. The food is only a small part of what I try to offer. On the way to the store, I do my best to engage the person seriously, asking for his name and about his interests and hobbies. Occasionally, if I have a few more minutes, I offer to sit with him and break bread.
More often than not, I am rushing and don’t have time for the ideal treatment outlined above, but I still make an effort with small things. I smile, offer a warm greeting, ask for the person’s name or just comment about the weather. I attempt to acknowledge his humanity at the same time that I fight off the impulse to objectify and pass harsh judgment on him.
I do not know how to solve the immense poverty and homelessness around our campus, but I do know that we do not need to wait for the world around us to change. We can, as Mohandas Gandhi said, be the change we wish to see in the world.
Noah Cheses is an associate rabbi at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.