Today I’m guest posting on my friend Cara’s blog, as part of her “Nothing, in fact, is small…” series I hope you’ll hop over and leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your own experiences with homeless and poverty. Do you struggle with knowing how to respond to those in need? Any tips or advice for the rest of us? Small ah-ha moments that changed you?
When I think about China, I think about gray weather and that woman in the subway exit near Tiananmen Square with her face flat on the cement. She had a young toddler with her. After I collected myself from almost tripping on them, I briefly considered my options. And then, I looked down on the pair of precious women living in a country with gender preferences, and for a moment I believed a lie learned somewhere along the way: Ignore them because giving attention only encourages the problem.
So I kept walking.
It wasn’t my first experience with poverty, which is perhaps why the short encounter still hurts my heart all these years later. I should have known better.
I grew up in a beautiful small town in Southern California where the homeless weren’t welcome on neighborhood streets. It was a safe and wonderful place to grow up, but the city’s policies meant I wasn’t exposed to poverty until college. In Santa Barbara—another beautiful small town—the homeless line State Street with signs and guitars and bowls meant for donations. It was during those formative young adult years that I began thinking about how I, a young single female, should respond to people in need. I didn’t want to encourage the “problem” and I couldn’t help everyone, and I didn’t know who’d use my money for drugs. Every time I headed downtown I felt inner turmoil and immeasurable guilt.
Do I smile and say ‘God Bless You’ but not stop? Do I throw a quarter to everyone I pass? Do I pick one person and buy them a hamburger? Do I avoid eye contact? Do I hand over a dollar bill with instructions to use it wisely?
Depending on the day (and whether my wallet was full) I used one of these replies, but never did I come to a conclusion as to the best one. Encountering poverty made me uncomfortable no matter how I responded, so I threw a buck here and a dime there and tried not to think about it too much.