I’ve been thinking about charity lately, what it is and isn’t.
In most people’s minds charity equates with gifts. I just saw a news story about a Chinese billionaire planning a three-course lunch for 250 New York City homeless people. They will pay in the form of having to listen to “We Are the World” sung in English while they eat. For me that price is too high. Anything but “We Are the World.” To many people, however, such an act of largesse epitomizes charity.
Years ago I was wandering around Belltown with no place to go, having worn out my welcome in the usual haunts. I met a couple of homeless men who wanted a beer. So they asked if I would walk with them to help them generate income for that purpose. All I had to do was add myself as a prop.
Five minutes after I joined these guys walking down the sidewalk, a large man in a ripped T-shirt walked up and said, “You guys look like you need a beer,” handed us a $20 bill, laughed and walked on. Was that charity, or was the man just acknowledging the honest truth of the matter? And was my presence in the team really instrumental in resulting in that acknowledgement? If so, whose gift was the greatest — mine, by my being there and lending my sad old man look, or that of the big guy and his $20? Bear in mind that the big guy looked like he himself never spent a dollar on anything but beer.
We drank down a pitcher or two at a local dive. When it was done my friends got some cans of beer with the spare money, hid them in paper bags, and we all sat down in a nearby city park. Because who can enjoy a beer in a dive bar, the atmosphere in dive bars being so sleazy and all? I wasn’t actually thirsty anymore, but I could fully understand how my friends would rather enjoy their third round outdoors in pleasant weather and fresh air than inside a dark bar, full of loud, rowdy, obnoxious drunks. They only wanted what we all want, the civilized life.
“What’s your point, Wes?” You don’t have to ask, I’ve heard it so often I’ve learned to ask it myself. My point is that my friends in that park were bothering absolutely no one, were not at all loud, rowdy or obnoxious, and you could only guess they were drinking beer on account of the paper bags and not based on any outward behavior, and a fine example of charity would have been for the street cops who saw them to have appreciated that fact and left them alone.
Sometimes the best charity is to stop messing with people.
Americans love to give things away. After all, we have too much. Then they get all wrapped up in guilt about it. Should I have given that panhandler that quarter? Won’t he buy heroin with it?
Meanwhile, your elected representatives hear your complaints that homelessness still goes on, and instead of ending homelessness, try to end homeless people. They pass crazy laws that outlaw all the things that homeless people can do to alleviate their own problems.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals actually had to inform the city of Los Angeles that a law prohibiting people from living in their cars was illegal, on the grounds that even non-homeless people can’t use cars without being alive in them.
I’m not making this up. A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court was needed to explain to a city government this simple fact: if they make it against the law to be in a car and simultaneously alive, then they have to prohibit all living people from using cars, not just homeless people.
Wouldn’t it be the best charity if everyone just stopped the stupid attempts to criminalize homelessness?