I used to be like pretty much everybody else. Whenever we would venture into downtown Toronto, I’d be on the lookout; making wide detours when needed; directing my son’s attention the other way.
Then something changed. I can really pinpoint a moment in time when it happened. It was more of a gradual process than an Epiphany experience. But somewhere along the line, my heart softened. I began to see the homeless as human, created in the image of God, and deserving of the dignity that entails.
I had often heard the old argument for not giving money to the homeless: They’ll just use it on drugs. But then I began to wonder, what if a few coins were all they had to get a meal for the day, or week even. I realized I could no longer ignore these poor souls.
My new resolution to do something firmly in mind made for an awkward encounter our next trip into the big city. Seeing a homeless man ahead, his up-turned hat on the sidewalk, I was ready to make good on my promise to help out, even if it was to be only a few small coins. Hand fumbling through my pocket, I soon realized that in our cashless society, I had nothing in my wallet but plastic and large bills. Sheepishly I walked by, avoiding eye contact as I had done so many times before.
I learned my lesson. Now I go prepared. Before any excursion into the city, whether it’s for a sporting event or dinner out, I pillage our spare change jar, making sure I have at least $10 to $20 in coins in my pocket - $1 to $2 for each person we might come across in our travels.
I will do this when we’re going out as a family, or if I’m heading to a sporting event as a friend. While others will circle around the homeless sitting on the sidewalk, I will walk by, dropping a couple coins in their hat or cup, look them in the eye and give them a short “God bless.”
The reaction I have gotten has ranged from silence to a mumbled “God bless you too.” To a thankful 6pm: “You’re the first one today.”
The reactions of friends and family have been initial fear and embarrassment, which slowly give way to a certain humbleness. My son will now even look for these opportunities when we foray into the city.
Still, I understand that some people are remain leery about giving cash to the homeless (no matter how small the amount). My brother-in-law and his family have found a great way around this quandary. Every so often they will descend into the heart of downtown with a mission in mind. They will buy a dozen or so hamburgers from a local fast-food chain (nothing fancy, just a simple burger) and hand those out to the people they come across on the street. A beautiful gesture that will fill a belly, at least for a day.
Just last week we went to a junior hockey game in the town next to ours. We were with a service group that my son belongs to, so to give him his independence I passed him $20 and sat a few rows away. Throughout the game I watched him come and go, laughing with his friends; and as we walked out after the final buzzer his grin told me he had had a fantastic time. Making our way along the cold snowy streets to our car, he spotted a homeless man sitting on the corner, cup in hand, ignored by the throngs leaving the arena. Silently, without any prompting my son let his hand slip from mine and he walked over, digging the change out of his pocket to drop in the poor man’s cup.