Thursday, November 8, 2007

Trash Can Lunch

Walking through what could objectively be described as a "depressed" neighborhood in Baltimore I saw a rather horrifying sight. I'm sure I've seen this many times before, and I'm certain that I will see it again. But it was striking nonetheless. A woman was eating her food from a city trash can.

"Okay, Thos, what's your point?"

I have a few points: 1) remember to be thankful for the meals you've been given this day, 2) remember that God answers when we petition to him, "give us this day our daily bread" (ergo, don't take your provisions so for granted that you forget to ask and thank the Giver), and 3) be prepared with a course of action the next time you see a person eating their meal out of the refuse.

I'm always flat-footed when I encounter these situations. I don't want to embarrass anyone for being poor. I don't want to act like I'm some kind of Warren Buffet of the slums. I don't want to mindlessly dole out whatever cash I happen to have in my wallet (not that I'm opposed to poor people choosing to spend their cash on Captain Morgan). But I do want to feed Christ when He's hungry. Unfortunately, today there were no food establishments within sight (the nearby shops had plywood windows), for I was going to run and grab some un-trash-canned food to give her. But if anyone cares to opine on a better plan, I'm all ears.


Tim A. Troutman said...

It's easy to get jaded to that stuff especially when you see it a lot. There's a lot of need out there. The issue with giving them money is a tricky one and I think has to be judged situation to situation.

Although as a rule of thumb I'd say - give the money to an organization that helps eliminate poverty rather than the individual. (I work at such a place and in fact my job is to raise money for it so then I might be a bit biased).

Its never a bad idea to give food however. Anyway, enough of my rambling.

Canadian said...

Thanks for the spirit of this post and especially your statement:
"But I do want to feed Christ when He's hungry."

I have been thinking about this in a couple ways lately. One is similar to your main thought that it is Christ who is hungry and in prison and naked when His image bearers are. Frightening thought!
The other is that if Christ is really consubstantial with all of us according to His humanity, where does that leave election and limited atonement. I speak as a waning Calvinist, but I would think a Calvinist would have to answer that only the elect are truly consubstantial with the second Adam and this does not seem to be the thought of the Father's. Sorry, didn't mean to move the topic of the post, just thinking.

Anonymous said...

Many people who have been turned out onto the streets are mentally ill. They should be helped by the government, but Reagan closed down something like 90% of the state mental institutions in the country in the 80s. Those that are too mentally unstable to lead independent normal lives in the world and are rejected by their families inevitably live on the streets.

We need to understand that much before we can understand their other problems. Not everyone has the capacity to clean up and enter the normal world. This isn't a new development and this isn't just something that is apparent in the U.S.

I used to try to find constructive ways to give to those in need, but, in the end, almsgiving is almsgiving, and we're called to do it.

I'm in no way trying to be judgmental on the almsgiving tactics of others, but this is what I do (and I'm also in a position to be able to give at the moment).

If someone on the street asks me for money, I ask how much they need and give what they ask for or whatever I have on me. I don't care if they spend it on booze or drugs. I have no idea if the guy shaking and slurring is drunk and looking for more booze or if he has Parkinson's disease and he had only one beer. They ask for the money, I give it to them when I can.

I scrutinize charities intensely as most give to Planned Parenthood now, fund embryonic stem cell research, etc. But, I never scrutinize the poor beggar on the street. I have yet to read anywhere in St. Chrysostom's writings where he held back in giving alms because he decided that someone wasn't worthy of them. Maybe I'll come across it someday, but until then, I think it's safe to follow his example.

Like I said earlier, we should always take into account the possibility that most of the homeless people who panhandle do not have the capacity to survive indepedently in the world and have been abandoned by family members. That is simply a fact.

Thos, I think you were right not to take immediate action. If she asked you, that would've been the moment to spring into action. There is a sub-culture of those who eat from trashbins. Perhaps she could have been one of those. She may have also been mentally unstable and to her that was the normal thing to do. It would be worse to walk up with a hot Quiznos sandwich in the view of others and end up offending her. If she was unstable it might even end up in her getting violently angry with you.

It would have been different, I think, if she would've stopped when she saw you and begged for money to buy food. But she continued as you walked past. Don't feel guilty for that.

Catholic (anonymous because I don't want to sound the trumpets for giving alms)

Gil Garza said...

Trash divers are a sure sign of addiction or mental illness. One can always direct a street person to the nearest Salvation Army (aka The Sally), soup kitchen, Social Security Office, City or State Welfare Office. A hot and a cot are always close. Never give them money. A panhandler can make several hundred dollars a day on a good corner. The panhandling lifestyle is very hard to break and since it feeds mental illness and addiction. It is exceedingly difficult to force a person like this to treatment for these maladies. The most compassionate thing to do with these people is to have them arrested since this usually the only way to corral them into getting help. Of course, you could just smile and give them a dollar and a hug. It would make you feel good and it’s easier than thinking.

Thos said...

The range of views here is impressive in its own right, given that those who have commented (with me) are tightly grouped relative to society, in terms of our feeling morally and religiously compelled to tend to the needy.

Tim (shaking the GFF habit) - I thoroughly agree that we must avoid being jaded. We must feel sad; this wasn't how it was meant to be! This is a manifestation of the fall.


I'm a fellow waning (perhaps I've waned already, I'm not sure) Calvinist. I'm afraid I don't know the Fathers on Christ's consubstantiality very well. When we feed the hungry, we feed Christ. I can't go much deeper than that without thinking and reading more of it. We'd agree that our mandate is to feed an unelect (reprobate) hungry bum still, no? I'd enjoy hearing more of your thoughts on this.


The government-should-help discussion is long and nuanced. I have concerns about satisfying my call to feed the hungry by doing so in the form of democratically taxing the wealthy. I think the government feeds without love, which fails to redeem those in need. It just feeds them one lousy meal.

Re: Reagan, I don't know the information you cite. I do know that feeding the hungry is not an enumerated power of the federal government - it's a state role. The fed does these things by offering pots of money (with big strings attached) to the states that the states can't turn down. That's why the national drinking age is 21 - states had to conform their own laws in order to qualify for highway money. Just sayin'...

But the rest of your comments jive with my views, contra Gil (whom I respect). I'm of the persuasion to give money and let it be on the pauper's head how he uses. If it goes to crack, it's his call. If it WAS GOING TO GO TO food, it was my (bad) call to deny a few bucks.

But Gil is so right too. A buck and a hug (for those who only give that) is a bad band aid, propagating bad behavior (like habitual pan-handling, an excellent point). We'd probably all agree that the offer for food is the best (when possible). I've had such an offer denied, which revokes along with it the request for cash to "buy food". I am trying to get into the habit of asking people "is there anything you need - what can I get for you" when they ask for money. It's hard, because we all want to walk away from a bum as quickly as possible and forget them. But isn't that look in their eye, and that concern for their well-being more what Christ wants than for us to throw 'em a dollar to ease our consciences?

It's complex - thanks for all your thoughts. My wife is (was, before mothering) a therapist with all government-funded clients. I know that most homeless people have mental illness, often serious. I know that homeless people have countless government programs and government-supported facilities to which they can turn. I just want to make sure that I'm loving when in that encounter.

Peace in Christ,

Anonymous said...

I guess everyone has their own opinions on how to give. I'm not trying to beat anyone over the head with Scripture or anything, but I reflect on the following verses when it comes to determining who is worthy to receive alms:

And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him. And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two, give to him that asketh of thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away. (Matt. 5:40-42)

It can be claimed that I would be taking the first two verses out of context since it is referring to one who would take something from you unjustly. But, I believe that is what is important about them. If Christ is telling us to give more than what is demanded by the person unjustly taking something from us or stealing from us, why should we judge whether or not someone who isn't forcefully or unjustly taking from us is worthy of alms?

I rashly judge others on a constant basis (at work, at social events, in conversation), but I try, by the grace of God, not to rashly judge someone who is asking for money on the streets, lest my determination that they are unworthy causes them to suffer in any way. Crack addicts and habitual sinners living on the streets need to eat too. There is no way to tell if the money you give them (which isn't yours in the first place) is going towards a meal or more crack. Wouldn't it be horrible if this human being had spent his money on crack and was starving just to have you judge that he would only use the money for more crack and not give him anything?

I understand Gil's conclusion regarding habitual panhandling. But do we ever judge ourselves for our own sinful habits? If we fail to give someone $15 because we have made the judgement that they will spend it to get drunk, but then we spend $80 that weekend to get drunk ourselves, doesn't that indict us? And we can't always be sure that it is a problem of habitual panhandling. As I said before, for some, those who cannot function normally in society, that is their only available occupation.


I can't for the life of me find anything objective on the deinstitutionalization policy of Reagan online. It is obviously a very passionate subject and politics should not have anything to do with it; we are talking about the lives of human beings. There are those on one side who call the mentally ill "wackos" whom they shouldn't have to care for with their tax money against those who are simply Reagan-haters looking for something to attack him with. Sadly, the most objective writing I could find on it is here. I don't think it's what you are looking for though. I wish I could find the numbers for you, but I'm not exaggerating, it was around 90% (give or take) of the mental institutions that were closed during his administration, releasing all of those mentally ill into the streets.

The Church used to care for the mentally ill in Church-run asylums in other Catholic countries like Mexico (before the Masonic revolutions that usurped or destroyed Church property for their own means). Philanthropists and money from Catholic monarchies usually funded these Church charities.

I'm not sure of the history of asylums in the USA. My range of historical knowledge on this topic doesn't go beyond the 70s. I think that asylums for the mentally ill had almost all been run by the government.

You're right to assume that they were probably not treated with much love. Where family members can, their mentally ill should be cared for by them. However, there are some who need to be institutionalized. They should not be treated horribly when they are, but they definitely need care that family cannot always provide. This care is always better when it is served by religious and paid for by donations, but those times seem to have passed. That still doesn't justify leaving them on the streets to survive in a world where their brain (the switchboard for the body) doesn't allow them to function normally in. For now, the majority of them do live on the streets. We become the only human contact that can help them by providing them with their needs whatever they may be. Most shelters kick the homeless out if they don't "progress" after a certain period of time. Some can't progress!

So the question is, what is the lesser of two evils? Leaving them to survive on the streets or institutionalizing them, even in a horrid government asylum?

Though I agree with Gil about habitual panhandling being a problem, I don't agree with having beggars arrested. They aren't criminals. And regardless of how much money a minority of beggars make on a particular corner, that occupation is one that any person who's mind is functioning properly would not aspire to.

The shanty towns underneath the downtown of Chicago should illustrate that there presently isn't enough room in any shelters or institutions to put the homeless in. So, arresting them accomplishes nothing. They'll just be living on the streets with a record.

Anyway, I'm not intending to write a comment of righteous indignation. I respectfully disagree with Gil only partially, and only on this point.

Anonymous again.

Gil Garza said...

I spent much of my college years as a tech working in the county detox and treatment facility. I am intimately aware of the lifestyle of the street people. I’ll share my conclusions about the best way to handle panhandlers and trash divers based on my training and experiences.

Street people are comprised of the mentally ill and the drug addicted. Often, those that are mentally ill are also drug addicts. Social services that the government and religious groups provide prevent those who are merely poor from going hungry or living on the street. Through panhandling, street people enable their addiction and illness to get worse. Not all panhandlers, however, live on the street. Street people are not poor or down on their luck. The street feeds hard core drug addiction, crime and untreated mental illness. Life on the street is a speedy trip to the morgue for those that live it. Panhandling quickens this trip.

Those that pity the poor give them pocket money. Pity feeds addiction and mental illness. Pity leads the giver feeling relieved of guilt and the receiver closer to death. Street people do not need pity but mercy and charity. They need concern for their good.

Giving a street person money or food does harm and not good. Scripture says that we should each earn our own living and not be dependent on others (1 Thes. 4:11). Additionally, Scripture admonishes us to feed only those who are incapable of working and earning the food that they eat (2 Thes 3:11-12). It is contrary to the dignity of the human person to feed dependency and illness.

The goal of arresting the street person is to get them off the street and into the proper care. Arresting a street person is not mean. It is the most merciful action because it prevents the street person from doing further harm to himself and gets him to the proper care he needs to live a healthy, clean life. Arresting a street person is the proper intervention that may save his life.

Think about it. If your brother ran off to live on the street because of a drug problem or a mental illness, wouldn’t you want him off the street as quickly as possible? Yes, you would. You wouldn’t want people to give him money so that he could buy more drugs or food so he could spend another day on the street. No, you wouldn’t.

Anonymous said...


Experience can make one jaded and lead one to believe they know everything about the problem, including how to handle it. When there is enough room to help the underground shanty towns in total that exist in Chicago, then I think your argument will make more sense to me.

You said:

"Additionally, Scripture admonishes us to feed only those who are incapable of working and earning the food that they eat (2 Thes 3:11-12)."

That is precisely my point. Most of those people who are living on the streets have acute mental illness of one form or another. I can see that when walking through downtown (the city I'm in) everyday. I'm afraid that the people I walk past are, in fact, incapable of working and earning the food they eat. Many of them talk to themselves, swat invisible flies, and shout expletives uncontrollably. Many of them are severely autistic. Some are physically handicapped as well as mentally. Perhaps it can be said that some may be even demon-possessed. There is no place for these unfortunate people so they live on the streets and beg for money and food. It is ludicrous to imagine that these people can become good American consumers like the rest of us. They have been abandoned by their families and ignored by their country. I'm not exaggerating either.

To shun them because they don't clean up is abhorrent. I'm certainly not one to judge a habitual drug user. I'm addicted to worldly things that damage my soul everyday. I may be just as close to death as a drug abuser is, too. We are all pilgrims waiting on death row, not knowing when our time will come. We all have problems with habitual sin. Those physically addicted to drugs may be better off spiritually than I am at death. Certainly there would be more mercy for them than for me, since I chose mammon over God for things that are spiritually addicting. Because I'm not physically addicted makes me even more responsible for my actions, especially since I've been given the use of all my faculties, by the grace of God.

Mercy. Those tormented souls need mercy. And denying them something they ask for is unmerciful, in my opinion. It has nothing to do with feeling better about myself. I don't hand out money and then take a breath of fresh air and say "Thank you, God, for making me so great". Neither you, nor I, know what those poor souls are going through. I just know that if I were in their shoes, I wouldn't be very grateful to someone who passes me by or has me arrested because they think that's the best way to love me.

I humbly disagree with you. These are my opinions on how to handle the situation, and you have yours. I don't think we are going to agree. God bless you.