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Poverty, Panhandling, and Pennies

Struggling with what's right

sunny 71 °F

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Everyday I read a reflection that comes into my inbox from Trinity Wall Street. It's their reflections on a year of Radical Christian Life: A Year with St. Benedict. Today's reflection included a quote from Lyndon Johnson who once said, "Doing what's right isn't the problem. It's knowing what's right that is the problem." The problem for me is I don't know what that means when it comes to people who are homeless, poor, and beggars on the street. In every city I've lived in and visited there are poor, homeless, disenfranchised people begging for a few scraps from the table of life. Here in Guatemala it is no different. There's a woman I see daily on my jog who's lost both of her legs. I don't know what illness or injury befell her to launch her into this desperate lifestyle of having to rely on begging in the streets for a few coins from the passerby. I try to carry a few coins with me to give her and some of the other desperate people I see along my route.

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I don't feel good about doing it. I feel desperate myself. What good am I doing? 1Q is barely 14 cents, it feels substantial in your hand but it's nothing. She'd have to collect 8 of those to buy an avocado from a street vendor. Never mind having a real meal. I've spoken to other people in the non-profit sector here who have told me that there are centers for rehabilitation, centers for the aged, centers to feed and help the homeless, but they are few and the need is great.

I had a conversation with my host's cook this morning about this situation to get a feel for her take on this issue. She's seen the same disabled woman I spoke of and she says that she feels very sorry for her. She knows an additional piece of the story... the woman has a child and the cook condemns the man who got her pregnant and left her in this desperate condition. She doesn't know anything else about this poor woman and explains she would never have the nerve to ask her, but she pities her and does give her some money when she has some to spare.

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But she has little pity for others she sees along the street, the young mother and child begging for change when she is obviously healthy, the man who could use a bath and should be out working the fields, the obese man who doesn't seem to have anything wrong with him other than being obese and sits there playing a harmonica poorly all day long. Even in a country where work is hard to come by those that have work, any work, there is a strong stigma attached to those who they perceive as not trying to work.

Since retiring from the Army I've worked in two different non-profits that specifically serve homeless women and men. On one occasion we were having a fundraising breakfast and one of the men was giving a testimony of living on the street and his life now. He stopped and I sat there worried about what was going to come out of his mouth. Then he said, "I used to beg for money outside of the train station and people knew that I was going to buy alcohol with it and they still gave me some. I'm telling you don't do it. Give it to Friendship Place instead. At least we'll get fed." The comment was unsolicited. He and I had practiced his testimony and it didn't include this statement, but later he told me, "I felt I had to say it. They needed to know the truth, they don't help anybody by giving the cash on the street."

His testimony, nevertheless, does little to ease my conscience. I feel I have to do more. I've been known to buy lunch for a homeless woman and her children. Just as I've seen people do all kinds of charity on the street. Perhaps that's enough. Perhaps getting a smile from someone when you give them a sandwich and a cup of coffee is enough. I have a feeling it's not quite it. Donors have asked me what to do when someone asks them for cash and I've told them, "you need to follow your heart." I just wish I knew what my heart was telling me, so for now I'll have to just keep digging for answers.

Posted by Aeren 16:28 Archived in Guatemala Tagged poor poverty homelessness

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