Virtual Voices

To give or not to give?

Religion

As the nights get colder and Christmas draws closer, Christians face again the question of how to care for the homeless. Some assume that with charities and city shelters giving food, clothes and beds, the homeless choose to be homeless, hungry, and cold. But some homeless advocates told WoW the reality is more complicated.

Mark Swanson, director of community ministries at All Angels' Church in New York City, said some homeless avoid shelters because some of the larger, public shelters are violent and unsafe. Tom Basile, director of the Bowery Mission, told WoW that other homeless prefer the freedom of the streets to the shelter's rules. Basile once offered an empty bed to a homeless man who refused it, saying he didn't want to follows the rules that went with it. Basile said homeless individuals merely mirror the values of the culture at large: suspicion of authority, stubborn individualism, and "an unrealistic view of what it means to be free."

Swanson asks a key question: "If you're walking down the streets … and you run across some homeless guy, what do you do?"

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First, Christians should treat homeless individuals with humanity. Prentiss Allen, a formerly homeless man now at the Bowery Mission, told WoW, "People see us in the state that we're in and they have the tendency to shy away from us. … I talk to them as a person. I don't talk to them as an object or a thing."

Second, Christians should give a dollar or a sandwich. Some analysts contend that most money given goes for alcohol or drugs, but Ed Morgan, president of the Bowery Mission, said, "Earn the right to be in someone's life by friendship and by giving a cup of cold water in the Lord's name."

Third, Christians should accompany the gift with a suggestion about the need for long-term help. Organizations like the Bowery Mission and All Angels' Church offer not just food but housing, education, and spiritual guidance. Many organizations have cards that Christians can give to the homeless people they meet.

Finally, Christians should understand that a real solution demands community effort. Throwing money at the homeless "eases our conscience, but it doesn't deal with the issue," Swanson said, contending that the evangelical church has neglected social justice issues. He tells Christians, "You give, period. But then you've got to do more than that. You need to go back to your church and say, 'We have a problem.'"

Basile said the needs of the homeless are inescapable, but he gives a warning: "If you don't figure out a response, your consciousness will be eventually deadened."

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