One morning in D.C. I met a friend at Caribou Coffee, and I grabbed the restroom key off the bar as soon as I walked in. The barista glanced at me but said nothing. I walked back to the restroom, which was clearly marked: “For Caribou customers ONLY.” A homeless man sat at the table closest to the restroom, sipping his cup of coffee, alternately watching me and his shopping cart of belongings just outside the door.
“If I did that, they’d make me buy something before used the restroom.”
I didn’t know what to say. I muttered that I was going to buy something; I just really had to use the bathroom. But I knew that he was right. My privilege as an upper middle-class white woman (even one dressed in her stinky running clothes) had given me that pass. I look like someone who is going to buy something. Or someone who isn’t going to bathe in the bathroom. Or both.
I don’t see homeless folks where I live in Boston. I know they exist, even in the affluent suburbs where I live and go to school. But besides running or a quick trip to the drug store, I drive everywhere. It’s hard to see anyone from the bubble of my car.
Before I left D.C., the plight of homelessness weighed on me heavily. I walked everywhere, including to and from my office downtown, where there are homeless people on almost every street. In the months before I moved away, I struggled every day with how best to treat these people with humanity. My general policy is to give money — change — to whomever asks, but I feel deeply the inadequacy of that response.
As I was packing, I decided I didn’t need to schlep a full tzedakah box, which my husband and I had been adding to since we moved to our apartment four years earlier, to Boston. I put the coins in a plastic bag and began doling it out. There was a lot of change, and I began to go out of my way to give it away. I’ll be honest: This increased interaction with some of the most vulnerable residents became a source of stress, as I found myself feeling increasingly helpless in the face of such a daunting social issue. I didn’t know if what I was doing was ultimately helping or hurting, and I don’t know what a better alternative is.
But when a person is asking something from me — a person who my tradition teaches me was created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of G-d” — I can’t decline a request for change, something that literally costs me very little to give. Because of this, I am unconcerned, as many are, about how the requesting party will use that money; that is simply not a factor in my thinking about this issue. As often as I can, I look the person in the eye, I smile, and I give.
I arrived at this decision about how to respond to these requests after a text study during a fellowship I participated in. The Jeremiah Fellowship, run by the local D.C. organization Jews United for Justice, was a 10-month program to train the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers. The text study, “Can You Spare a Dime? Jewish Perspectives on Spontaneous Tzedakah,” which focused specifically on these kinds of street requests, was in three parts: To give or not to give? What about people who aren’t really in need? Are there alternatives to giving money?
We’re told in Vayikra Rabbah 32:2:
Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Re’uven: To anyone who gives a small coin to a poor person, the Holy Blessed One will give many small coins. But is the giver really just giving the poor person a coin? Isn’t she really giving him his life? How so?
If a loaf of bread costs ten coins and a poor person is standing in the market and only has nine, and someone comes along and gives him one [more] coin so that he buys the loaf of bread and eats it and his soul is returned to him [i.e., he is saved from starving to death]. The Holy Blessed One says to the giver, “In your case, too, when your own soul threatens to break loose from your body [i.e., when you're on the verge of death], I will return it to you.”
The text study (several more pieces besides the one above) had a profound effect on me. I like that the Talmud acknowledges that not everyone who asks is in need (or, by extension, will use the money for the professed need) and suggests non-monetary ways to help those in need — while still affirming our obligation to give even just a little, and to do so with compassion.
I know that not everyone agrees with my approach — including some of my fellow Jeremiahs, who looked at the same texts I did. While I lived in D.C. I also made a (small) annual donation to an organization that worked with the local homeless population. Each week my husband bought a copy of Street Sense — a publication by and about those experiencing homelessness — from a vendor near his office. And I spent many a Christmas day repainting various buildings of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a downtown D.C. shelter.
All of this is to say that I loved being in back in D.C., where homeless folks are visible, even if they are a painful reminder of how short our society falls in an important test. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”