September 5, 2008

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Could that be Jesus?

David SilerIs it just me or have you also noticed a growing number of people at exit and entrance ramps holding signs announcing their homelessness, hard luck or need for help?

One of the most common questions that I am asked when people learn of my work with Catholic Charities is, “Are those people really homeless?”

A simple answer is not available, but I believe we all wonder how to respond to people asking for our help. I offer some suggestions and food for thought that I hope is useful.

Several years ago while accompanying a group of eighth graders on a trip to Washington D.C., we came upon an elderly gentleman on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building as we waited for our tour.

This man held a sign declaring his service as a Vietnam veteran, his homelessness and need for assistance. One of the eighth graders approached me and asked if she could give this man some money. I responded that of course she could—as it was her money—but I challenged her to make an informed decision.

As our line was not moving at all, I suggested that she and a few others interested in the plight of this disheveled man watch how much money the man received over the next 15 minutes.

This was not exact science by any means, but over the next 15 minutes our little group estimated that the man collected nearly $50. The kids quickly realized that he would make about $200 per hour. Armed with a bit more information, they were free to respond. None of the students decided to give a gift.

On several occasions, I have stopped to talk to our exit ramp residents and offered to take them to a homeless shelter.

I have never been taken up on my offer. This is certainly not to say that they are not indeed homeless, but I am sure that money is not always the answer. The kind of hard work and personal growth required of a shelter resident might be more difficult than a few hours a day spent at an exit ramp.

There are many ways that we can respond rather than with a few coins or dollar bills.

One of my favorite ways is to offer a simple blessing and prayer for this person who for whatever reason is seeking help from strangers.

I cannot know their heart, but God does and can respond to their needs in ways that I cannot. One friend told me that she carries a case of bottled water in her car, and offers them when she is close enough to hand one out the window.

A priest friend of mine once said to me after handing a quarter to a beggar on the streets of Washington, D.C., “If I am certain that that person is not Jesus, I will not offer anything. Otherwise, I feel obliged to do something.”

He carries a pocket full of quarters, saying that it allows him to make eye contact, and the gratitude that is expressed makes him feel good so it is worth a few bucks a day for him.

So, I cannot definitively answer the question about the true needs of the sign-toting strangers, but I sure hope that if I am ever forced to rely on the generosity of strangers that you will not ignore me.

(David Siler is executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. E-mail him at

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