After speaking at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, last week, I left with a few friends to head back to the co-housing community where I was staying. Moments after leaving the bookstore we passed a woman who was homeless and begging for change. I pulled out my wallet and gave her several dollars. My companions, all from Portland, stood nearby. I was aware that when one gives money and others don’t, people can feel awkward, and I let my friends know that if I lived in Portland, instead of rural Maine (where we rarely see people begging on the street), I would have walked right by this woman.
In fact, growing up in New York City, I routinely walked by people who were homeless, never making eye contact or trying to help. We moved to Maine from Philadelphia (another city in which I ignored those who are homeless) when my son was two, and he grew up without seeing people begging on the street. When I took him to Boston during his spring vacation when he was nine, and we passed a man in front of the subway begging for food, he turned to me in horror. “I can’t believe you didn’t help him,” he said. I promised that this wouldn’t happen again. And it hasn’t. But that’s because it’s easy to give when you’re not confronted daily and visibly with the plight of so many in need.
Of course, people are in need all the time, and just because I don’t see people begging in Maine doesn’t mean that people aren’t in need both in my own state and across the globe. But staying aware and generous and working toward systems that prevent and solve poverty takes conscious commitment. It may have seemed to my companions in Portland that I was momentarily more generous than they, but in truth, our generosity needs to be directed toward long-lasting change, and none of us can maintain daily giving to those in need when we are confronted by so many so often.
Once again, we must work on solving underlying problems and changing systems so that no one is left in the situation of living on the streets, and no one is confronted by the daily call to give change, rather than build healthy, safe, and sustainable communities for all.
Image courtesy of daquellamanera via Creative Commons.