I'm flummoxed when I encounter homeless people. I was raised with the idea that money given to the homeless is just wasted on booze and drugs, or that somehow people need to earn money, not get by on handouts. My parents do not have hearts of stone, nor did they ever explicitly say such things to me, but somehow I managed to become a young adult who felt saddened by the plight of those who had nowhere else to go yet stymied by their seeming inability to better their situation.
My thinking on this has progressed. Now, I'm mostly simply sympathetic. I mean, who wants to ask people for money and food to survive? But I'm not here to preach about how we should all be more charitable or engage in debate about giving money to panhandlers. Homelessness is a complex issue, and people can make their own decisions about what they can or can't do to help. I'm here to tell a story about compassion and parenting and about the kind of people I want to raise Maddie and Riley to be.
I took Maddie to the grocery store with me on Sunday afternoon. Riley stayed home with my dad, so it was just me and the Mads. I really enjoy the times I get to spend with either Maddie or Riley one-on-one; it's a rarity, and something I should be more mindful about making happen. As Maddie and I walked down the sidewalk to the store's entrance, I saw a man sitting out front, makeshift cardboard sign reading, "Homeless and hungry, anything helps" propped against his knees. "That man doesn't have a home," said Maddie, in the matter-of-fact way of a four year old. We've seen enough people with such signs and she's asked enough questions that she knows what's going on.
We went in the store and did our shopping. The guy was still there on the way out. "Would you like to give that man some money, Maddie?" I asked, on a whim. She lit up. "Oh! Yes! Then he could eat something!" I handed her a dollar and she took it right over.
"Here you go," she said, extending the money.
"Thank you, little one," the man kindly said in return, with a huge smile.
"I hope it helps a little," I added, somewhat lamely.
"It sure does. Take care of your beautiful family," he said.
And with that, we were off. Maddie clearly felt like she had changed the world. She talked about how next time, we could just buy him some food while we were in the store and give him that instead. Or how maybe some of the people who don't have a place to live could come stay at our house, or how we could give them some of our sheets and blankets.
I don't have an answer to the problem of homelessness, but I can say that it made both me and Maddie feel good to make one small gesture of compassion. I don't care if that guy spent that dollar on an apple or on cheap beer: he's doing the best he can, sitting there in the rain with his sign, and if that dollar helps, I'm glad to have given it. And I'm glad for Maddie to see that little acts of kindness matter, and for me to be reminded of this, too.
John was always the first person to open his wallet in these situations, and his generosity changed my thinking a lot. I am not often clear about what specific things John would have done as a parent, or about how I can honor his presence in Maddie and Riley's lives. This is one area where my footing feels sure.