As someone who has been used to driving in the relative ghost town of Greeley, Colorado for the past fifteen years, my first year in Fort Collins has felt more like New York City (minus the skyscrapers). Navigating the streets of The Fort can be stressful for a variety of reasons, such as the extraordinary number of bicyclists and joggers, train delays, the Max, non-existent parking and the never-convenient road construction.
Another personal stressor that I recently added to the list is the increasing number of encounters I’m having with panhandlers. As the stoplight ahead turns red, I immediately realize that I’m going to be the first car at the intersection where the homeless man stands gazing at me with an unobstructed view for what seems like an eternity. Forlorn and dejected, their woeful story is scrawled upon the scrap of cardboard they hold, like a diploma from the school of hard knocks.
Don’t make eye contact, I think to myself. It will only encourage him. How do I know if he’s legit? He might be an alcoholic or drug addict, or perhaps he’s mentally deranged. I’ve had uncomfortable encounters with people like that before, and I don’t want to experience it again! Still, everyone’s ignoring them like they’re invisible – like they’re not even real or human.
Why do they persist in such a humiliating, futile endeavor, exposed to the elements, and exposed to the continual, piercing mental judgments of stranger after stranger after stranger? Why don’t they make use of the resources that the city offers them? Isn’t this against the law? They must be lazy. They probably make more money than I do. There are jobs out there for anyone who is willing to work. I’m sure they just want cash for booze.
I am certainly not proud of many of these judgmental thoughts and attitudes. Jesus extended himself to us when we were wholly disobedient, untrustworthy and undeserving. Undoubtedly, some of these people’s requests for help are legitimate, and undoubtedly, some are not. How can anyone possibly know? I recently read an article in which an Oklahoma City man told police that he makes $60,000 a year from panhandling.
Still, a cautious compassion creeps up within me, as I recall Jesus’ love for the lost and his generosity toward the poor. But my inner, introverted self is in turmoil from a conflicted mixture of emotions — fear, suspicion, pressure, guilt, sadness and resentment for being forced into this awkward, uncomfortable position, again and again. Better to run the red light and risk a traffic ticket! It’s a daily battle to get my eyes off myself and onto others. When I do, I quickly realize that the man on the corner is in a far more uncomfortable and awkward position than me!
On a legal level, local panhandlers’ civil rights have recently been strengthened. As part of an out-of-court settlement, the city of Fort Collins will pay more than $80,000 to the Colorado branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and will no longer warn or detain people who engage in passive panhandling. They are now legally free to do this with minimal stipulations, and so I need to affirm their right, as well.
But what am I to do on a personal level? The Fort Collins Rescue Mission offers eight practical ways to help the homeless in our city.
1. Be Prepared. Anticipate opportunities you may have to engage with homeless people and be “salt” and “light.” Develop a game plan.
2. Recognize that homeless people (and their problems) are not all the same. The person you meet may be a battered woman, an addicted veteran, someone who lost everything to medical bills, or someone lacking job skills.
3. Talk to the person with respect. Taking time to talk to a homeless person in a friendly, respectful manner can go a long way. We all need the consistent love and encouragement of other human beings to help us make smart choices in our lives.
4. Provide an alternative to money. Keep some non-perishable groceries in your car. Consider offering a fast food gift certificate or bring them a carryout meal. Better yet, share a meal with them. You can also offer gloves, socks, granola bars, bottled water, etc.
5. Pray for the homeless. Ask God to bring them peace and encouragement to meet their needs and to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Specifically, ask God what he would have you do in each situation.
6. Don’t hesitate to call the police. In extreme weather, a stationary individual may suffer from hypothermia or heat stroke. Calling the police may save their life.
7. Encourage the homeless to get help through Fort Collins Rescue Mission or Serve 6.8. They can help with practical needs, as well as with overcoming addictions to help them become productive, self-sufficient members of the community.
One need not be intimidated or uncomfortable when confronted by people in need. Their circumstances can seem overwhelming, but with a little forethought and preparation, we can play a small part in a successful, long-term solution in our city.