Panhandling and Christian Duty: the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s approach to works of mercy

Christian duty and panhandlers. What’s the right thing to do? For a long time I’ve struggled when approached by panhandlers, people on the street asking for money. I want to help, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of, or feed an addiction, or endanger myself.

As a Catholic, as a Christian, I know helping the less fortunate is central to my faith. In one of the most famous passages from Scripture, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says in a parable ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

So on the street, someone asks you for change…what’s the answer? In this episode we explore this issue with Gary Sole, CEO for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Cleveland.

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A right way to give?

When you really think about the Gospel of Matthew, and what Jesus says about the “least of these”…there’s no waffling here. These are what are called the Corporal Works of Mercy, which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops says are “found in the teachings of Jesus and give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.”

But does this mean if someone walks up to me I need to give money every time? When working in European city centers, or downtown Phoenix or Cleveland, I would try to have some food to offer instead of money, but is that enough?

The US Catholic Bishops say giving alms to the poor is best done this way: “Donate money to organizations that have the ability to provide support and services for those in need. Do research and find organizations that put people in need first, rather than profit.”

What about scammers?

That seems sensible…and yet when I’m approached on the street I feel faced with a flesh and blood person asking me for help. But do they really need help? One reason I’m so torn on this is probably the effect of local TV news

“But there is a group of panhandlers targeting some areas who may not be as needy as you think. CBS 2 investigative reporter David Goldstein took hidden cameras to find out…all holding signs claiming to be down and out, but are they as needy as they seem? ‘You’re driving a rental car?!’ Maybe not.”

I lived in Phoenix years ago and homelessness was a year-round issue, but with a noticeable increase in the winter months, around the holidays.

In the summer people literally die from desert temperatures above 100, 110, 115 degrees Fahrenheit. But in the winter temperatures were moderate, and freeway off ramps would have people with signs asking for money and I wanted to help, but then I saw on TV a report similar to these.

“It’s natural to want to help people like this man or this woman begging by a road in Salt Lake City. Her sign says she’s stranded in need of help trying to get home. When drivers stopped she tells them, ‘I’m from Seattle, I came down here to live with my boyfriend and he ended up kicking me out a week before Christmas.’ You got nothing then. ‘No just my backpack.’… But then the cameraman quietly followed her and found she actually lives just two blocks away in this house.”

Charity is one of the really obvious activities for Christians—all throughout the Bible Jesus tells us in one way or another to help the less fortunate. In Phoenix I ultimately began constructing backpacks I would keep in the trunk of my car, or backseat.

In each backpack, I would stuff canned fruit, snacks, drinks, survival tools like matches and a flashlight, a Bible, and information about the largest homeless shelter in the area—things I think I would appreciate if I were having a serious rough patch. I would only give the packs to people I’d seen before, and who seemed to be legitimately in need.

But with stories of scammers, my charity was poisoned by skepticism to a degree. In Scripture, Galatians chapter 6, we find the line: Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s perspective

Gary Sole, CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Cleveland.

To continue exploring the question of right action in the face of unknown need…we’re joined by Gary Sole, the CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Cleveland. It’s a tremendous ministry that is run mostly by volunteers, about 2000, focused on giving person-to-person support…nearly 200-thousand people getting food support, or visits from volunteers…

“Whether it’s nourishing food at our hunger centers, providing homeless families with warm clothing, beds and mattresses, blankets for the homeless, eviction prevention, school supplies, utilities and more…”

Because our episode today is about finding the Christian response to someone asking for help I thought the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was the perfect place to go for advice. Here’s CEO Gary Sole.

***Rough transcript follows***

Gary Sole: l I find it very helpful to talk to the person so often the people we meet on the street whether they really need our assistance or not, they’re they’re sort of looking for attention and somebody to listen to them, and uh that’s often how I I start the process off. And from there um sometimes some interesting things can happen depending on exactly what maybe their motives are and what their where they’re at that day.

Tony: That’s really good really it comes down to connecting to the person it’s not so much about the material aid, which is important, but really we need to make a connection, right?

Gary: Absolutely and a lot of people are surprised–they don’t really expect us to do that. They almost get used to us wanting to just give them some money or just say no and walk away.

Tony: So this idea of alms giving in general uh if you go to the USCCB, the Catholic Bishops of the United States, they say to vet a you know established charity or ministry um and that’s kind of the best place to give, again it gets into this tension though if we’re facing a person on the streets, this is a human being in front of us asking for help, so how do we weigh or do you have any tips on weighing giving to a great organization like yourself, but also you know being a person with another human being?

Gary: Well I think we’re always going to bump into people on the street, Tony, who are going to ask us for assistance and some of it he has to do with what they’re asking for. I won’t say so much how they ask, but what they’re asking for, and then maybe the dialogue that you have with them, sometimes they’ll walk away, so uh it that sort of tells me that that really they were just looking to get some money. And then some of it because I’m with Saint Vincent de Paul some of it has and I’ll share this with you because it’s not a bad thing to know if you’re in certain areas and you do notice you’re getting asked for money, for instance if I’m over on West 25th Street by the West Side Market we have a large operation at St Pat’s right down the street at West 36th. I’ll direct people to Saint Pat’s, I’m proud of our food pantry and we do hot meals there twice a week. I’m proud of the people who work there, they assist people and they’re very familiar with the neighborhood and so forth so I often direct people to uh one of our locations if I’m near any of them. I frequent all of them but throughout the eight counties of the Cleveland Diocese, I’ll direct people to Saint Vincent de Paul.

Tony: It’s it’s really a value-add when you think about it, it’s not just a transaction on the street, but really you’re trying to you know further a connection with somebody and bring them to to a little more robust support.

Gary: Absolutely

Tony: One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this now is because you know around the holidays we we often kind of get this push for charity and giving, but I heard long ago that honestly it’s the times other than the holidays where there is a great need and we should be thinking about charity and community service all year round and I thought I’d just uh pose that to you: is that an accurate kind of imbalance I guess in in our focus on on helping others?

Gary: It’s a 24/7/365 days a year kind of a need. What is interesting is is the conversations you can get into with some of the people, uh some of them are pretty interesting, some of them are very honest, and uh some of them are just maybe they’re having a rough day, in other cases uh they really need to help that’s that’s how they they get by.

Tony: We we say so much about the material aid, but looking at someone and and giving them the dignity that they are a human uh it does go a long way because we’re also called to do that in our faith.

Gary: Tony, I was thinking about this if I may I once had a gentleman he asked us he was at the back door of our pantry on Archwood and West 25th and he asked me for he asked me for something very specific and that was the car fare, so he could get back to the east side, his apartment was from the east side, and he shared with me and he’d just been recently released from jail, so he had served about 14 years. Because I did some prison ministry so I asked him a little bit about uh you know where he served and things like that, not nothing about why, just where he had served what he had done. So after listening to this gentleman for a little while I gave him what some might consider actually to be a large sum of money he and he looked at it, and he looked at me and he was a little stunned and uh he thanked me and he went to walk away as he walked away, I said to him I said you know I just wonder I said now that you’ve been released uh and you share with me that you have family out there that you’re hoping to reconnect with, you could be a great resource for them so that they understand uh what it was like for you. I says and I wanted to share with you, now that you’re out and you’re going to have to re-establish your life, keep in mind that God puts you here for a reason. And I stopped him cold in his tracks and I’ve often wondered what happened to the gentleman okay because as I said he was out from the east side and I did not ever see him again, but uh well I helped him out with his car fare, but I don’t always help everyone. Just so your listeners are aware, I can’t always do that so..

Tony: That’s a, that’s a beautiful story and really thinking about it, through that lens someone who made maybe not the greatest choice in their past is being given an opportunity to make a better choice now, and you’re just reminding them that now’s an opportunity to choose.

Gary: Absolutely

Tony: That’s great you know one thing um that looking through some of the materials about uh Saint Vincent de Paul as I saw through COVID which was such a strange time, and it it still feels like a strange time, uh that the number of volunteers fell uh who were helping out with your ministry, but the hours actually increased, and I thought that was really interesting in the numbers, because I just I don’t understand if people were just giving that much more like the really dedicated volunteers were just investing themselves even more, uh because we saw so many you know uh food banks and just um community solidarity around uh so many different things um was there anything that comes to mind to explain that that rise in hours um or was it just that doubling down on the ministry?

Gary: So it was an interesting thing to watch when COVID happened so the volunteers fell off by and this will be startling to you but somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of the volunteers should not be coming, okay and that was some of it had to do with a lot of our volunteers are older not super old, but older some of them had some health issues of course it was being recommended that they not not being crowds of people, not be around others if they can avoid it. But there was just also a number of people I think who were uncomfortable and stopped volunteering. What happened though was was we came across a handful of volunteers who were relentless: they filled all, the all the days of the week that we were open, it happened not just at pantries I’m familiar with, but other pantries that I’m aware of that are out there, people who would normally say work on if the pantry is open twice a week who would work on on the first day it’s open they were coming both days. And the other thing people did was it was consistent it was to the point that when I would walk onto one of the pantry’s premises I knew all the volunteers who were there because they were the same volunteers who were always there during COVID and that’s why you saw the hours go through the roof. But the volunteer, the number of volunteers went down significantly, yeah that’s what was going on and we had an awful lot of dedicated people who came year round and um it was great it was great.

Tony: That’s beautiful at the time we needed it the most you really did see people you know step up and and yeah invest themselves in the faith and also your ministry specifically. Just lastly I I wonder if for someone especially who maybe isn’t as familiar with the work of uh Saint Vincent de Paul what do you think they should know or what is something that that they should take with them or consider, either if they’re faced with one of these uh you know choices on the streets or just in general as we walk the pilgrim journey?

Gary: So when when Saint Vincent de Paul helps the family, and a family could be defined as as one or more persons, um we start out normally by praying with them. Okay so we don’t necessarily do that in a food pantry but anytime we’re doing any type of one-on-one service we’ll start out we always ask if they’re if they’re all right with doing a short prayer but then the next element that Saint Vincent de Paul enforces and I think it really makes us different it has to do with talking and listening to the individual okay, things could that can be a real game changer in in what we do and in the last piece of course is trying to put together the help and I’ll share with you, Tony, that sometimes that help comes from a multiple group of agencies, and and people depending on what exactly involved and what what’s going on so uh that’s what Saint Vincent de Paul is all about.

Tony: That’s great you’re a link in the chain, and you’re keeping faith at the center.

Gary: Yeah that’s exactly what we are, a link in the chain.

My thanks to Gary Sole of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Cleveland. I think many of us want to do the right thing for our neighbors in need, and for someone who is facing addiction for example, money may not be the right thing for them. No matter the situation, we can and should always recognize others as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re all made in the image and likeness of God, and that’s the case whether we’re having a lot of positive momentum in our lives, or we’re struggling financially, physically, mentally, or spiritually. God bless you…thank you for listening and sharing Faith Full..and please..have a great day.

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