Monday, October 13, 2003

My bum and me

I know "bum" isn't the politically correct word today -- we should say "homeless person," or, "street person." But somehow, "bum" just seems to fit him better -- in the tradition of the hobo bums of the depression.

Holding up a sign saying, "HOMELESS VIET NAM VET ~ PLEASE HELP," he has his bit of turf staked out in the median strip by a traffic light on a busy, four-lane road. He gets a good flow of traffic stopped or slowed to make a left turn into a shopping plaza.

A while back, I started giving him a dollar or two when I'd go by. He is always dignified; he doesn't take the money from your hand. He receives it, gently. He doesn't have the disorganized, unkempt look of the schizophrenic or other mentally ill person. He is neat and looks in relatively good health. A short, white beard covers his face. He has the tired, sad look of the down-and-out.

If I lived in a big city (and I have before), I'd be more cynical (and I have before). But I live here, in a little town in Central Florida. I know all the arguments against giving bums money. One of the grande dames of the church lectured me outside the Diocesan Cathedral in Orlando: Don't give them money, it only encourages them. They just spend it on drugs or booze. Send them to the police station -- they'll help them find a place to stay and something to eat.

I gave one of them a dollar, anyway, incurring her wrath. I figured, what better place to hang out and expect Christian charity than in the environs of a cathedral? And I know enough about street people to know they'd rather lay down and die than go to a police station for help. They wouldn't get it, anyway, for the most part (I've worked for a police department before. I'm finding a lot of my checkered career history coming in helpful in ministry).

For example, I know that Florida is tough on the homeless, the addressless. You have to have a mailing address to get most services. You have to have some proof of residency. Women and families with children and an address can generally get assistance -- food stamps, financial assistance and housing allotments, etc. But for men without an address, there just isn't much of anything.

Nor is there really any kind of homeless shelter in my little town. The needy can make the church soup-kitchen circuit and get one hot meal a day, and that's about it. If I did have the resources to do what I want, I would start a homeless mission. And a permanent healing mission. Maybe I'm starting to feel some kind of call in this direction.

I know that my little bit of money would be used more efficiently through one of the church or civic charities. They assign admininstrators and caseworkers to make sure the money is well spent, and used properly. It is used to buy things in bulk. Very economical and efficient.

I'm going to write a check and send it to the national church tomorrow, but this evening, I was in the left turn lane to go into the shopping center, and there he was. I fished in my wallet for a couple of dollars and found only one dollar bill and a five. I left the one in its nest and pulled out the five. As I came alongside him, I handed it to him through the window. He accepted it graciously.

"God bless you, darlin'," he said. Our eyes met, and we acknowledged each other's humanity.

A five dollar bill doesn't get you much in today's economy. but he and I have both been on the short end. When you need it and it isn't there, it can be a lot. It may have bought him a cheap, fast-food meal or an even cheaper bottle of wine. It isn't up to me to say how he spends the money that is now his. He surely won't go laughing all the way to the bank with it. And if he needs the comfort of a bottle of wine to keep him company on this rainy night, that's between him and God.

It was that human contact that was important tonight. Not to be elevated by my own self-interested charity, but to have that connection. That we see and recognize each other as real people with souls. I was on the giving end of the money this time. I don't know about the next time. And who knows, I may have entertained an angel.

I rolled through the evening, wrapped in his benediction, his blessing.

God bless you, too, my dear bum.

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