I read once that St. Francis of Assisi believed that when he was asked for help by the poor that it was, in fact, the poor Jesus asking for help … and who was he to refuse? This story touched me and helped shape my own belief about helping the homeless. The idea of giving “spare change” to someone with no home and no food always bothered me. Remembering St. Francis’ lesson, I would imagine the homeless to be me and I would ask myself, “If I was homeless, how would I want to be helped?” And so I began a practice of always giving homeless people who ask me for help a $20 bill.
I know there are people who say that this is irresponsible, that they use the money to buy drugs or alcohol and that by giving them money I am encouraging them to remain on the street. To that I say simply, “fuck off.”
I’m not sure if it’s proper to have St. Francis and “fuck off” in the same writing but I don’t care. I’m sure if St. Francis were alive today he would feel the same way. Perhaps he would find a kinder way to say it. But I’m still young and unpolished enough that I can get away with it.
Enough cheekiness. My problem with the argument that we shouldn’t help people who have nothing is that it’s … well … mean, uncompassionate, and stupid. Start with the idea that the few dollars a day they get is somehow an incentive for them to stay on the street. How does that make sense? People don’t live in the cold for a few bucks a day. They live in the cold because they are desperate and need a helping hand. Or how about the always-popular statement that they will buy alcohol with my money? I know that’s a possibility and I really don’t mind it. One, if they do buy alcohol with my donation then that means money they get from the next person will probably go toward food. And second, who am I to say that a man who lives on the street, begs in the sun all day, and then sleeps on the cold pavement doesn’t deserve a drink if he wants one? I know a lot of millionaires, including me at various times in my life, who have a glass or two or more of red wine each night to unwind after a “hard day” and their lives are nowhere nearly as difficult as the homeless. So I give them $20 each time I am asked.
I have noticed something interesting: every single time, without fail — as if by some kind of global coordination — every time I give a homeless person a $20 bill they say “God Bless You.” This is an amazing fact! Think about it. Isn’t it true? Every single time … like a rule of homelessness. How is it possible that every homeless person says the same thing?
Things like that impregnate my brain, growing and maturing until they are born in the form of a writing like this. And this “God Bless You” mystery is no different.
At first I was turned off by it. It felt liked a canned line, something to appease me. And (I thought) I’m not sure if I want to be blessed by that God. It doesn’t seem like it’s turned out too well for the homeless person so maybe I should steer clear of this God that they are blessing me with.
But then I started to think about it. Actually, I stopped thinking and I opened my heart. It’s a funny thing about giving; it turns out it’s much easier to open your wallet than your heart. For me, the opening of my heart started with a homeless man named Roy.
Roy is a man who is often at the off-ramp of a freeway I take to return home after visiting one of my teachers. Having just received a spiritual lesson, I was always pleased to see Roy and have a chance to share with him. It made me feel kind and generous and well, a little saintly. I would roll my window down, motion to Roy, he would come over and I would give him $20. Then he’d say, “God Bless You,” and I would drive away feeling really great about my progress on the spiritual path.
Over and over this happened until one day Roy said something different. He looked me in the eye and he asked, “What’s your name?” This caught me off guard. You see this wasn’t part of the deal. I was supposed to give the money, he would bless me and then I would drive away feeling really good about myself. But this was something entirely new. Why did he want to know my name? What was going on?
Roy must have sensed the mental roller derby his question had provoked because he said something else: “I just want you to know that I appreciate you. You have helped me so much that I felt badly not knowing your name. I wanted to thank you.”
I don’t know what it was about those words. Perhaps it was his kind eyes, or maybe it was just the feeling of a true connection with another human whom I hadn’t previously seen as human. Whatever it was, my eyes welled with tears. Roy held out his hand. I shook his hand and looked in his eyes. And at that moment what had been a credo became my truth — I saw myself in Roy. And then he said, “God Bless You.”
I drove the rest of the way home that night crying. I felt so blessed and, at the same time, so small for pompously believing that Roy just needed money. I had set out to treat people in need like I would want to be treated and I had failed. I overlooked the simple fact that human connection, love, understanding, and respect are what I would truly desire if I were Roy. The $20 bought him dinner but the handshake and knowing my name gave him dignity. I had learned my lesson … or so I thought.
A few months went by, and now each time I saw Roy I greeted him by name, smiled, asked him how his day was and handed him $20. I was sure, now, that I was a saint as I was giving Roy everything I could. Until one day I pulled up to that onramp and saw Roy looking really upset. I rolled down my window and asked him what was wrong. “They bulldozed my tent! I had permission to put up my tent from the owner and the police came and bulldozed it!” He could barely contain the mixture of rage and sadness brewing inside him.
That day I was coming home from a meditation class. I had experienced a beautiful meditation and was feeling that special way you feel after a deep connection with the Source. So I offered Roy some advice: “What you need to do is take a deep breath, try to find your core …” Roy cut me off with a simple statement, “What I need is a new fucking tent.”
This statement hit me just like the question he’d asked me months earlier. Once again, Roy had stunned me. And once again he was right and I was, well, a naïve spiritual know-it-all who couldn’t imagine what it was like to have your home bulldozed. So I drove to SportMart, bought a tent and took it back to Roy. With tears in his eyes he thanked me and said, “God Bless You.”
Driving home I started to think of all the lessons Roy had taught me: the importance of seeing others with dignity, the value of connection, and the simple fact that sometimes a tent is more important than a teaching. Roy was no longer a helpless man, he was my teacher – in all the ways that mattered, he was teaching me real lessons that were just as impactful as the ones I received with my Guru or in yoga class.
I was reminded again of the “God Bless You,” the irony of how it seemed to be a slogan that all homeless people told me after receiving money, and how I never appreciated it until now. And it occurred to me in that moment, looking into Roy’s grateful eyes, just how special the gift of those three words really were. All of my arrogance and dismissiveness melted away and I realized that Roy and every other homeless person I had ever met had given me, with the simple words, “God Bless You,” the only thing they had to give. I had given them a $20 bill, of which I had many, and they had given me a blessing … a blessing they dearly needed, and yet chose to share with me.
Big hugs of love,