Nearly every Sunday after mass, my family encounters a homeless woman on the walk to our car.
She sits on a park bench between the church and the parking lot and asks conscience-laden churchgoers passing by for money.
Were I suddenly to find myself in a difficult personal situation, my church community — any faith community for that matter — is one place to which I would turn, too. Studies confirm that people of faith are significantly more charitable than secular or non-religious people.
But charity doesn’t always take the form of dollars and cents.
When asked during an interview this year about what our response should be to beggars, Pope Francis replied, “Help is always right.”
It certainly is.
But this woman’s perennial presence on that park bench suggests her situation is not temporary, is not improving and that monetary handouts from churchgoers isn’t providing the real help she needs.
Like many cities, Fort Worth, where I live, has grappled with how — and if — to regulate panhandling.
Earlier this year, the city council banned “aggressive panhandling” and even briefly considered ticketing people who give money to beggars.
The latter measure was withdrawn from consideration, as it raised constitutional concerns about limits on personal monetary decisions, but it provoked other important questions about our moral responsibility to the people we encounter on the street.
While there are some beggars who are overly aggressive, exploitative and whose tales of woe are transparently false, we can assume that many people asking for money are, in fact, desperate and authentically in need of assistance.
But in such cases, is giving money to a panhandler helpful or harmful? Does it satisfy a moral good?
We’ve all heard the stories of panhandlers who have used their street earnings to feed an addiction.
Several years ago, I encountered a woman whose alcoholism rendered her homeless for a lengthy period of her life. After years of begging, she recovered, no thanks to the money she acquired on the street, which she insisted only fueled her drinking. “I went straight to the liquor store every time,” she said.
A priest I know, who is a former social worker, once chastised a congregant for giving cash to a panhandler when they were at lunch one afternoon. “Don’t do that. It won’t help,” he warned, speaking from his experience working with the poor for years in New York City.
For many of us, a street handout is an easy way to satisfy our conscience.
Still, it’s legitimate, even necessary, to wonder if our charity is ignoring or contributing to a larger problem.
If our consciences dictate that we must help, there are many ways to do it, some of which do not involve cash at all.
Most people on the street ask for money, but many of them have other basic needs that are easy to satisfy.
It’s sometimes as simple as directing them to a charity or organization you support that can connect them with services they need.
You could carry cards with the address and phone number for Catholic Charities or any of the numerous providers whose mission is to help people get back on their feet.
Offering necessities like sunscreen, toothpaste, wet wipes and even some nonperishable food items should be welcomed by a person in true need.
If carrying such items isn’t practical, carrying gift cards to grocery stores or restaurants is. Giving them out in lieu of money is one way of helping to ensure your donation is put to good use.
If time is not an issue, offering to purchase a meal for someone is a way to help, and it provides the opportunity to talk with and listen to the person.
Many times, listening and empathy is as needed as the meal itself.
How best to provide “help” is personal decision, one that need never involve money, but one that should always be performed in a way preserves the dignity of the person being helped. That means, engaging them, asking their name, and looking them in the eye — even if they’ve asked you for money most Sundays for the last year.