After almost six years of driving around my county, seeing hospice patients and their families, I know that it’s a pretty sure bet that I will see people asking for money. I don’t always know what to do and how to respond… even though I know there are legitimate needs out there.
Early on in my hospice work, I was unsure what to do. But I had to do something… There was something hauntingly universal about their faces. They looked tired. Worn. Struggling. Hungry. As they walked the median strip past a line of cars, I could feel desperation, and a bit of anger. And most of the time, I drove away and did nothing. I didn’t look at them. I locked my car doors.
But something happened one day when I read a man’s sign. It simply read… “HUNGRY”. Impulsively, I reached into my lunch and pulled out a couple bags of fruit. I lowered my window, and held them out. The man stared at me. And then he smiled and took it, and said “Gee… Thanks!”
He opened one of the bags and started eating from it as he walked back to the overturned paint bucket he was using as a seat. It wasn’t anything glamorous… Some sliced apples, a few grapes, maybe I had splurged and there might be a strawberry or two.
Right then I realized… I had “seen” him.
The next time I knew I would go through that particular intersection, I looked for him. And he was there. Again I reached in and offered him something from my lunch. This time, I included a pre-frozen water bottle which he accepted.
Finally, one day as I handed him some of my lunch, I asked him his name. He looked a little startled. Then he replied, “my name is John.” I said, “well, John, my name is Deb. And I hope you have a good day.”
That got me thinking… What if I pre-planned some snacks and other items that I could offer as I was driving around? I knew the water bottles would not spoil in my hot car on summer days. I tried to find other things that would survive in the heat or the cold. I also talked with social workers and friends who worked with people who have housing instability. What would be helpful? What would be insulting? Should I just ignore them? (That felt very UN-Christlike!)
I personally am not comfortable giving out cash. But at the same time, I know that I have more resources than these folks, and I wanted to make what I give them meaningful and helpful.
Below is the list of the types of things that I put into these bags. Generally speaking, I make anywhere from 4 to 6 bags at a time. Depending on the season, I change the contents to fit the needs of the people that I meet.
In a 1 gallon Ziploc bag:
- a bottle of water
- 2 protein bars
- sample size hand lotion, a few bandaids
- chewing gum or candy that doesn’t melt in the heat
- hand sanitizer
- snack size portions of crackers and cookies
- a gift card to a coffee shop. (I choose one where I would eat myself and is widely available in my area.)
WINTER: I include things like gloves, hats, scarves, pocket warmers, warm socks, lip balm.
SUMMER: I trade the winter gear for sunscreen, lip balm, bandanas, visors, insect repellent.
Where do I find all this stuff? At the dollar store, where I buy my groceries, at the pharmacy, at the big box super store… you know… Where I shop! I save the complementary toiletries from hotels, and ask for donations from friends who travel more than I do. Sometimes I knit or crochet the hats and scarves, but in every case, I try to choose things that are new or are things I would use myself.
Most of the time, when I hand out one of these bags, if it’s not one of the “regulars,“ the person just kind of stares at me, as if in disbelief. In the few seconds we have, I try to say something personal like “I hope this helps you have a better day.” One cold and rainy day a few weeks ago, I came up beside a man who looked very cold. I handed him the bag and said, “there’s a warm scarf and hat in here… I hope it warms you up a little.”
When I drove past in the opposite direction heading to my next appointment, I saw he had on the hat and scarf and was headed towards the coffee shop to get something to eat.
At least one person had a better day that day. This is a good thing.
I’m blogging about this because it’s something simple. Something that we can all do. It doesn’t fix the problem of skyrocketing rents, impossible health care premiums, and chronic homelessness. But it does remind me, every time I connect with another human being, that responding with compassion is the way of Christ. I am reminded that we are one earth, one family, each made in the Divine image.
And we need to take better care of each other, and our planet.
…for the love of Christ compels us…