The Greatest Gift

Posted: December 4, 2008 in Acceptance, Compassion, Homelessness, Morality

It’s the holiday season and some folks are feeling charitable.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I was getting e-mail from folks who were wanting to volunteer their time to feed the homeless. Now, with Christmas about three weeks away, I’m receiving inquiries about the types of items the local homeless might need.  

I’ve been trying to respond to those e-mails as quickly as possible. Still, all of that takes time. So, what I’ve done is create a "boiler plate" list which I can just cut and paste into the replies. To some it may seem a bit like cheating for me to reply using a "form letter" but it does ensure that folks get an answer – and hopefully, the local homeless might receive something practical they can use.

There is one "gift" I didn’t include in the list because I did not want to offend anyone. But that particular gift has nothing to do with material possessions.

Let me explain.

I’ve noticed that many folks avoid looking directly at a homeless person. In some instances I’m sure it’s deliberate. In other cases, it may be that folks don’t want to stare. Perhaps they’re concerned that it may make the person feel uncomfortable. Regardless of the reason, not looking at a homeless person, or pretending they’re not there is pretty demeaning.

I’ve seen folks walking along the sidewalk veer away as they pass a homeless person. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps they assume the person has a "bad odor." Maybe they’re concerned with "catching something." It’s possible they’re not aware that they’re putting distance between themselves and the person. Nonetheless, this creates a sense of isolation for the homeless person.

In any community which has a homeless population, panhandling is fact of life. At one time or another most folks have either had a person approach them asking for spare change, or have seen a person standing somewhere holding a cardboard sign.

Some folks will reach into their hearts, then into their pockets and hand the person some money.

There are those who may want to give but are reluctant to do so because they may think the person wants the money for drugs or alcohol. In such a case, there are alternative methods for giving. Most fast food restaurants sell "gift" cards which can be handed out in lieu of actual cash. Even buying the person a meal works.

There are, of course, those who completely ignore the person altogether. They pretend not to have heard. They stare straight ahead as they pass the person with the sign. There are those who give a "disgusted" or "dirty" look at the person. Some will make a mean spirited comment as they pass. And, in some extreme cases, may even threaten the person with physical violence.

Hopefully, by now, you will have come to guess at the "gift" I’ve been alluding to.

Too often we forget that beneath the exterior appearance of homelessness is a person. We get caught up in the rush of life. We allow our misconceptions of what homelessness is about to obscure our seeing someone who may need just a bit of encouragement. We hurry through our days and look past those who – despite their lack of housing – are a part of our communities.

When we think of ourselves as "us" and we the homeless as "them" we create social barriers. When we ignore them; when we shy away from them; when we look at them with disgust; when we treat them with contempt – we rob them of their humanity.

I think it’s admirable that during the holiday season we want to provide the homeless with material gifts; that we want to do something "nice" for them. We should be willing to provide the homeless with the most basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. After all, it is the right thing to do.

However, it seems to me that one of the best gifts we could give to our homeless would be to acknowledge them as people – not only during the holidays, but throughout the rest of the year.

And, who knows – once we begin seeing them as people, we might even be more willing to seek effective solutions to assist them at finding a way off the streets.

That would be the greatest gift of all.

  1. anamerican says:

    Any and all acts of charity are beneficial not only during the holidays but throughout the year. The thing is, none of us need to turn to organizations or seek direction in making a difference to our citizens who are homeless. We each carry the tools of a “gift” in the making when we choose to acknowledge the homeless with a smile, a greeting or any interaction that places value in our shared humaness. Kindness is a universal gift for humanity.
    This is perhaps one of my favorite quotes regarding charity by Mother Teresa, who I admire greatly for her life of dedication to those in need:

    Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person. ~Mother Teresa

  2. Skye says:

    “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matt. 25:40

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