“I drive by the homeless sleeping on a cold dark street
Like bodies in an open grave
Underneath the broken old neon sign
That used to read ‘Jesus Saves’”
–Brett Michaels, Something To Believe In.
By: Chris Warren
Last summer on a weekend trip to Chicago, my friend took me to Michigan Avenue. For the unfamiliar, Michigan Avenue is the place to shop in Chicago and is a huge tourist spot. It was a warm summer night; the weather was stunningly beautiful. Prior to this outing, people who know me well might (correctly) say I would rank visiting Michigan Avenue slightly higher than a nine hour flight sitting next to a screeching baby. My buddy had to do some nagging and arm twisting to get me down there. I must say, once I arrived, I had a great time. Keeping in mind it’s not as much about what you do as it is who you do it with, I knew I was there with the right guy. I still had no interest in shopping. But the the whole experience of being there and soaking in the vibe wasn’t just ok. It was a total blast.
As a first-timer, I quickly picked up that it is a place where money flows. All the shops are upscale. There are no Walmarts or dollar stores on Michigan Avenue. The food, the parking, everything, is priced for the conspicuously self indulgent. Anyone who would buy a purse that costs more than the average Walmart shopper’s monthly rent does not think too much of laying out $15.00 for a cheeseburger or $35.00 to park for a few hours.
The other thing that was glaringly noticeable was poverty. Lots of it. Right there in the middle of bling-dripping Michigan Avenue. Up and down both sides of the Magnificent Mile, there were panhandlers looking to snap up a buck or two. Even if 90% of them are lying hustlers, that still left a lot of legitimately hurting people. Being around them is the classic trope of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other: If I walk past a beggar and give them nothing, can I feel ok with that because they are probably scamming anyway? What if they are the real deal and sincerely do need a hand? Many of them brought small kids along, or had pictures of their kids. My slightly naïve non-city background inclines me to believe that only someone who was truly out of options would drag their kids with to beg on the street. Yet, I wasn’t born last night and know that, yes, people really do use their (or someone’s) children as props for cash. So if I give the shabby old lady sitting in a doorway few bucks, am I a dupe or a disciple? If I stare straight ahead and walk right past her, am I street smart or self absorbed?
My religious and moral background clearly insists without any wiggle room that I am obligated to help the poor. If the recipient of my kindness is deceitful about their need, then I still did the godly thing and the wrongdoing is on them. The Lord will mete out justice for everyone’s sin at a future time and place. Still, I am a practical guy and I’m not going to give away my hard earned cash unless I have pretty good assurance that it will be used for its intended purpose. The Creator of the universe may ultimately own everything, but us ordinary carbon-based life forms have a finite number of dollars to give away. I want some bang for my mortal buck.
I obeyed my faith and gave a lady some money. A half hour later on the other side of the street, we came across another woman dressed in similar cultural attire with a similar sign explaining her tale of woe. Within another block or so, we passed yet another. It was obvious they were a cartel. I looked at my buddy and said, “I think I’ve been played.” I would have rather not known at all. A tiny spark of unconfirmed hope that I actually did make a small difference would have meant something to me. I felt cheated out of more than just an amount of money I could afford to lose anyway. It was a three-way sin against God, a deserving stranger, and myself. My friend, who had a similar religious upbringing as me, sensed that I felt like a fool for trying to be kind and assured me that I did the right thing. When I got home, I sent donations to the Salvation Army and a local homeless shelter. My spirit is not broken and I still believe in helping the poor, but from here on out I’ll leave it to the professionals to figure out who’s authentically needy and who is a very convincing street performer.
Now it’s deep in the winter of January and warm summer nights on Michigan Avenue are just wishful thinking. It’s not likely that anyone who was mooching tourists for cash last August has since hit the jackpot and doesn’t need to beg on the streets anymore. The frigid weather chases the crowds away and the few brave shoppers who happen by are in too much of a hurry to get out of the cold to notice the panhandlers, who themselves are few in number. Where do the poor go in the “off season”? They still have needs. They still have to live. They still have kids. They are still people. They are still out there, somewhere, probably not warm and cozy, looking for a way to scratch by in harsh weather that is an inconvenience for most of us but a very serious problem for them. Few seem to care when these lost souls put themselves on display on a very public street with nice weather and thick crowds; how much less are the poor thought about, cared about, prayed for, in the middle of winter when the streets are empty and poverty is out of sight?