Once I built a railroad, I made it run,
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done –
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it’s done –
Brother, can you spare a dime?
– Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
You’ve seen them, sitting on street corners or hanging out at off-ramps, holding up cardboard signs. “Homeless Vietnam Vet.” “Will work for food.” “Hungry, God bless!” And my favorite, held up by a bearded guy in his forties: “Out of work Supermodel.” I had to give him credit for being funny, but did I stop to give him anything? Or, as so many of us do, did I simply drive on by?
Why are they there? I live in a pretty liberal place. Three co-workers have referred to this town as “the place where hippies go to die.” With all its progressive, leftist leanings, why does this city have so many people begging for food on the side of the road? Aren’t there enough programs to feed and clothe the less fortunate? Could it be that some of these people want to do what they are doing?
While I was living in Washington state, a radio talk show host mentioned a woman he often saw at a particular intersection, asking for money with the standard “Homeless — Will work for food” sign. He had someone bring her a cell phone, got her on the show, and began to ask his listeners if someone would be willing to give her a job. Several people called to offer her a position in their businesses. She accepted a job from one of the listeners, but as the host later reported, she never showed up. When the show went to check on her, they found her at the same intersection, again begging for money. In this case, the woman preferred to beg because she got more money for less work than she would have done holding down a $15/hour job.
I recall a news story explaining how some college students dress in their rattiest clothes and head to another town to beg. A convincing student on a good street corner can easily pull in enough money from begging to pay for room and board. The students reported that they would much rather beg than take a part-time job that requires heavy lifting, cleaning, or memorizing the phrase “Would you like fries with that?” No wonder some people would rather slouch with an outstretched hand than hold down a normal job.
“Sparky” Anderson of sparked.stormloader.com once wrote about his run-in with a beggar:
I was in a rush to get to my night class one particular day, but also extremely hungry and extremely broke. I ordered my two hamburgers, forked over the $2 for them, and sat down and started unwrapping one of the burgers. A bum sitting across from me, somewhat obscured by some foliage, asked me if he could ask me a question before I started eating. Now, at this point, you have to realize that I have literally minutes to make it to class where I have to take a quiz, it’s bitterly cold outside, and I’m in a generally grumpy mood. I knew pretty much where this conversation would lead to, and I was in no mood for it. As predicted, he asked if I would go up to the counter and buy him a hot cup of soup. Generally I just give an unemotional “No” without making eye contact and ignore beggars in situations such as this. He was a particularly persistent one, however, and I’d had enough. What I proceeded to tell him was that I paid for my meal with money that I made with the job that I have and that he should consider doing the same, as he surely has enough time to wander down to the nearest employment agency to find employment. When asked if I believe in helping others out — which obviously only meant him — I curtly replied no. He shut up after that.
Sparky continues by declaring that beggars are pathetic creatures on the level of dogs, and we should not enable them to lead such a worthless existence. While his attitude has mellowed a bit since he wrote this article, there are times when you just don’t want to deal with a beggar. You could try this: the next time you see someone holding up a “Will work for food” sign, offer him a hot meal and two bags of groceries if he will do some painting at your house. If he truly wants the opportunity to work, he will jump at the chance to earn the food. But if he is there because begging is easier than working, or to support an addiction, he will turn you down. Try it. I have yet to get anyone to take me up on the offer, despite the piteous slogan on his sign. What does that tell you about the nature of those beggars?
Yet I have given money to beggars. I’m sure you have, too. One of the reasons why I believe I am obligated to help these people comes from a discourse from a man of God. King Benjamin said the following to his people over two thousand years ago:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? Mosiah 4:16-19
Since we are all beggars before God, how can I be quick to judge the people who are begging before me? I can’t. I know that some are fakes, some are addicts, and some are truly mentally disturbed and need a doctor much more than they need my spare change. Even so, I believe I have a duty to assist them.
But there are a lot of beggars out there. I could go to the bank, cash out my paycheck, and hand out $100 bills to every beggar I see, but by the time I got home I would have no money left over for my own rent, food, and (more importantly) internet connection until the next paycheck. I could toss every dime I earn to every brother I meet, and the result would be a bunch of beggars rubbing their heads where I hit them with my dimes. Would it change the number of beggars on the street corner the next day? Nope. The need is never-ending. So what is a good God-fearing Christian supposed to do?
King Benjamin also sheds light on this challenge: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.” (Mosiah 4:27)
My primary responsibility is to care and provide for my family. After that, I am my brother’s keeper. Many Christians, Jews and other people of faith have dedicated a portion of every dollar they make as a charitable donation, to help people specifically like those who stand on street corners. And yet, in our abundance, it’s still possible to help those who are standing to the side asking, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”
Here’s the response to that request, in the words of an old hymn:
Because I have been given much, I too must give.
Because of Thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live.
I shall divide my gifts from Thee with every brother that I see
Who has the need of help from me.