The Christian response to the needy: charity and respect
By Nissa LaPoint
Photo by James Baca/DCR
They stand at street corners holding signs like “Anything helps” or “Will work for food.” Some wear fraying jeans and grimy jackets with a tin can in hand. They’ll walk through lines of idling cars to grab a dollar from a sympathetic driver.
Despite their downtrodden appearance, the homeless are human beings deserving of respect.
“I think there’s a stigma that they’re lazy, dirty criminals,” said Melinda Paterson, executive director of Father Woody’s Haven of Hope day shelter for homeless in Denver.
“Actually, they are the sweetest people,” she continued. “People need to realize they’re human and they’re someone’s brother, sister or mom. Treat them with respect because they’re human beings.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ told the disciples the poor will always be with us, and what is done for the poor is done for him: “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Matt 25:40).
How are Catholics encouraged to respond to the homeless?
“The world can become an alienating place for some people, with many reasons and explanations as to why,” said Al Hooper, director of the Denver Archdiocese’s Office of Social Ministry. “But one thing is known by the Christian, we are made for relationship; first with God and then with others. For those who are distant and estranged, alone in their own private thoughts and private world, it is here, in this place, the Christian finds the meaning of the Good Samaritan.”
As program director for Christ in the City Missionaries, a Catholic service program for young adults to serve the poor, Yvonne Noggle recommends approaching the homeless without fear, albeit cautiously, and with a readiness to give them back a little humanity.
“It could be a simple smile or it could just be a prayer,” she said. “When you pass them on the street, make eye contact with them and even reach out and shake their hand.”
Just asking for their name can lift them up, she said, because many become nameless when poor.
If at a stop, reach for water or spare snacks to hand to them. When plagued with a sense of being invisible, the smallest act can restore a homeless person’s dignity, Noggle said.
“Even putting on (car) flashers and letting them know that at the moment they’re the most important person to talk to,” she said.
Local shelters report an increasing number of new homeless, primarily attributed to the economic downturn.
Paterson said the Haven of Hope shelter saw up to 700 needy one day last week, seeking a warm meal, new clothes or help with aid like food stamps.
“It’s a ton of people and on average, per day, we see between 10 and 14 new faces,” she added.
She believes many prefer the street corner rather than shelters or are newly homeless and are unaware of other options.
In reality, many are addicts so Paterson advises against giving money.
“I encourage people to not give to them when they’re holding signs,” she said. “I encourage people to give to organizations that can actually clothe them and feed them.”
She never gives money herself, but sometimes carries food and pairs of socks in her vehicle—or anything warm—and is ready with her business card and information about the nearest shelter.
“It’s encouraging for them,” Paterson said.
Saying a prayer or sending a tax deductible donation to a shelter will do more to rehabilitate a needy person than to hand them cash, she said.
Giving also blesses the giver, she added.
“To be able to just hand a pair of your gloves to them is so beneficial for them and also good for your heart,” she said.
The poor bless us by giving us an opportunity to serve Christ.
“Do not be afraid,” Noggle reiterated. “Christ associates with the poor and is amongst the poor.”