e-mail us


Amid economic mirage, homeless speak truth


I always keep a stash of quarters by my front door for washing clothes in the laundry room of my apartment complex; but more and more the need for spare change follows me out into the streets of Tucson, Ariz.

Every year thousands of homeless people make the brutal pilgrimage to our city, because street life is less lethal in a warmer climate. Everywhere, from street corners to strip malls, beggars extend empty palms. I cringe to think of the stories embedded in those lifelines: hard luck, mental illness, Vietnam ...

Those of us who give spare change on the streets often are chided, told that a lot of “those people” don’t want to work. To be honest, that’s fine by me. Our nation is full of able-bodied people who don’t want to work either -- they just lie about it and trudge away at jobs they hate in order to consume products they don’t need.

So I unload my quarters, wishing I could see Christ in the face of the people I encounter. I rarely do: I’m too busy feeling guilt about my good luck and anger at a system that screws the poor. The hope I usually experience as an activist working for economic change goes limp.

Then I hate myself: I should save those quarters and write out more checks to United Way -- or to groups that lobby Congress to repair a tattered safety net.

The goal is to make charity obsolete, I tell myself. The problem is I can’t bring myself to say that out loud to someone living on the streets.

It’s astonishingly narcissistic, this spin of feelings and ideological debates -- given the plight of the person in front of me. Who, in return, often gives me all he or she has left: a “thank-you” or “God bless you” as I walk on into the pharmacy to buy a lipstick I don’t need.

Such are the contradictions we live with, we who belong to that one-fifth of the world’s population that controls almost 83 percent of the wealth.

I nearly veered off the road when a leftist friend said he didn’t give handouts because a lot of homeless men at day’s end pool their money to purchase alcohol.

Hello? What is it we of the middle class do at birthday parties, restaurants, first dates, potlucks, you name it. Except for those who have forsworn alcohol altogether, there are few among us who do not imbibe, “pooling” our money with that of friends to make for a better party, funnier jokes and sexier one-liners.

It seems to me that whatever someone does with his or her handout is that person’s business; it’s one point of dignity in an otherwise hellish situation. No homeless person owes me a grant application for my generous endowment, detailing a breakdown of expenditures.

As Bishop Thomas Gumbleton said in a recent speech in Tucson, wealth belongs to God and thereby to all. That is, my money doesn’t belong to me in the first place; the very vocabulary of charity blinds us. We imagine we are doing a favor rather than giving what is owed.

Of course that’s easier said than done. The mind races. What if the money is spent on drugs?

But how can one know? And even so, who’s to say the high will not lead to the crash that will lead to the rehab center or the telephone call home? (We have many runaway youths here.) Grace happens, too.

I think of all the times the Creator gave me some spare change in the form of a friendship or a beautiful day or what have you -- handouts I’ve squandered so many times it sickens me.

Yet the spare change keeps on coming with a new chance to make good.

Many cultures throughout history have held the beggar in esteem as the occasion for the sacred act of giving alms. But today in our culture the poor are blamed for being poor. You don’t even hear the word beggar because it conjures places like Calcutta, and that ruins the giddiness of good patriots in a “prospering” economy.

The homeless, be they thieves or bodhisattvas, tell the truth about our society: We’d rather throw people in the streets or in prison than exercise a modicum of political will to meet basic human needs.

Opinions differ as to the best way for individuals to spread some of the wealth, even as we work to reduce the need for charity. This is not an argument for handouts, by any means. One of the better ideas I’ve heard about is a system whereby charitable groups sell vouchers worth free meals that one can give away in lieu of spare change. Such a handout might alleviate the squeamishness many feel about parting with cold cash -- and more homeless might benefit.

An eternal tension: the quick fix vs. the long, hard fight.

A poem by the great visionary Bertolt Brecht, called “A Bed for the Night,” describes a man in New York who, in the depths of the Depression, appeals to passersby to get beds for the homeless:

It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz. Some of her poems were recently included in a collection of Latina poetry titled Floricanto Si (Penguin, 1998).

National Catholic Reporter, March 20, 1998