I came across the man in the photo above. At the time, I’d been thinking a lot about the concept of distinguishing between a deserving and an undeserving poor and, if you believe we should be categorising people in need, there’s no question that this man would fall into the ‘not worthy to receive my generosity’ group.
Intrigued by his sign – WHY LIE? I WANT BEER – I asked him about it and how he had ended up here on the tourist-ridden Wharf asking for money. He told me a little of his story: 18 years ago he got addicted to crack cocaine; more recently he had become an alcoholic – using booze to help him kick his crack habit, substituting one addiction for another in the hope of his new poison causing him less harm. He told me about his 16-year-old son, whom he was hoping to visit later. And finally he said that all he wanted before he’d be on his way was $3 to buy a beer and a Magic Marker so he could write a new sign for the next day.
When I asked if I could take a photo of his current sign, he not only said yes but jumped up to pose for the picture. I gave him as much change as I had – probably just shy of the $3 he was hoping to receive. You see, whether it’s right or wrong to feed his addiction, I was touched by his story and reminded that everyone has one that explains how they got to where they are now. While it may be true that he’s begging for money because of his own bad choices, I am mindful that I was once begging for mercy because of mine. And while it may be true that he’ll spend the money unwisely, I can’t think of a time when God has withheld blessings from me – or even financial provision, actually – due to my lack of wisdom in handling them.
The thing that struck me most during my 48 hours in San Francisco was the poverty by the piers. I can’t recall seeing so many people begging on the streets in such a condensed area in any other city. Another day I saw a man and woman rifling through bins by the Ferry Building. As I was milling around, the woman ran over to two men taking photos of a statue of Gandhi. She asked if they could spare anything from the two large bags of food they were carrying. They said they couldn’t – “No, because we’re going to eat it!” – and she started to walk away.
On impulse, I followed the woman and gave her some money. This time, I had no idea about what she might spend it on, but as a Christian can I really watch someone dig deep into a bin and then beg for food and not do something? No. I believe Jesus calls me to act generously and leave the judging to him.