It’s amazing, really, how many people you see reading the Bible or other religious books on their mass-transit commutes in the morning.
I live a short walk from the subway (“Metro” to fellow DC commuters), which I use to get to work each day. Unlike less frequent and longer-distance light-rail modes of travel from further out, where people often develop regular travel companions that they chat with and, over the years, bond with through stories exchanged about the family or workplace, on the subway most people remain anonymous to each other. So they listen to music that, even with ear-buds in place, often remains audible to those around them, or they play the latest time-gobbling games on their smartphones, or do some work, or perhaps read a book. Among these, a rather significant subset, particularly on the early morning leg of the commute, pull out Bibles or ponder daily meditation books.
Toward the end of my morning commute, I usually join them with my own spiritual reading, though earlier on I am occupied with saying my rosary. The morning commute offers a handy niche of time I can use to sink into five decades of meditations and emerge at least momentarily more recollected, more fit to meet the moral challenges of the day.
My terminus is Union Station – a mere two minutes from work, but the route runs me through a daily gauntlet of encounters with the homeless who cluster under the long Beaux Arts-arched cover of the station’s entrance way. Arriving there at 6:30 a.m., I often see the homeless still rolled up in rough blankets on the cold pavement. Sometimes I’ve counted 6, 8, or sometimes even 10 men so disposed on cold winter mornings as I cross the length of the station building.
Occasionally, I’ve asked one of them why they don’t instead prefer to spend the night at one of the shelters. Oh, they will variously reply, their stuff gets stolen, there are bedbugs, there are too many rules.
This last may allude to drinking and drugs, which a lot of them have problems with. (“I don’t drink or do drugs” is one of the commonest disclaimers when they appeal to passersby for funds). And it is clear, as everyone agrees, that many of them also, or instead, suffer from the more extreme forms of mental illness.
So what do you do, if like many, perhaps, of those reading this, you find yourself frequently walking through the downtowns of our cities and encounter appeals from people who, although some may bear at least some responsibility for their misfortune (Alfred Doolittle’s “undeserving poor” in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady), often also drew the short end of the stick in the game of life?
Oh, I know something about the systemic, “macro” aspects of the problem – how, for instance, increased homelessness tracks with the release of many former residential patients of mental health facilities several decades ago, when civil rights concerns coupled with pharmacological treatments for conditions like schizophrenia made life on the “outside” possible (for those willing and able to keep on their medications and blessed with some sort of support system). And I know about the thorny issue of enabling the addicts among them. And of course, another subset of those begging are mere scammers (though these are usually pretty easy to spot). But the “macro” issues do not address each day’s here-and-now challenge. What do I do at this juncture, when this homeless person asks for a buck for something to eat?
From time to time I’ve sought the opinion of priests on this question, and they’ve generally paused a moment before replying, as though it is something they have grappled with too. (A good sign, I think!) They then offer sound ideas, like buying dollar gift certificates from McDonald’s to hand out, so you know the money won’t be wasted on drugs. One of my daughters tries to keep a stash of granola bars in her car so she can stick one or two in her bag to hand out if necessary.
Though these are sensible approaches (even if difficult for the organizationally challenged, like myself, to routinely pull off), I think that the distinction between money and food is not as great as first appears. I mean, if I give food to you, the addict, then you can allocate all the rest of the morning’s take to drugs or alcohol.
So I end up with muddled compromise, giving sometimes and sometimes not, feeling different sorts and degrees of guilt about either option, sometimes stopping to exchange a few words with people who seem to want to chat. And sometimes, nowadays, I will ask the homeless person that I give a buck to if he or she will pray for those among my own relatives and friends who are addicted or mentally ill. (Though I don’t usually put it that bluntly: I ask them to pray for family members having a hard time). I figure this is my own version of the arrangement entered into by medieval beadsmen, who, in exchange for alms, would pray for their patron.
But always, I end up not really comfortable with what I do, or don’t do, or leave behind me. And I know that next day will confront me with the opportunity to rethink my response all over again. For one way or another, the poor you will always have with you.