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The Pope and the Panhandler

From The New York Times, 3/4/17 issue.

Pope Francis
New Yorkers, if not city dwellers everywhere, might acknowledge a debt to Pope Francis this week. He has offered a concrete, permanently useful prescription for dealing with panhandlers.

It's this: Give them the money and don't worry about it.

The pope's advice, from an interview with a Milan magazine published just before the beginning of Lent, is startlingly simple. It's scripturally sound, yet possibly confounding, even subversive.

Living in the city -- especially in metropolises where homelessness is an unsolved, unending crisis -- means that at some point in you day, or week, a person seeming (or claiming) to be homeless, or suffering with a disability, will ask you for help.

A coin dropped into the hand of another.

You probably already have a panhandler policy.

You keep walking, or not. You give, or not. Loose coins, a dollar, or just a shake of the head. Your rule may be blanket, or case-by-case.

If it's case by case, that means you have your own on-the-spot, individualized benefits program, with a bit of means-testing, mental health and character assessment, and criminal-background check -- to the extent that any of this is possible from a second or two of looking someone up and down.

Francis' solution eliminates that effort. But it is by no means effortless.

Speaking to the magazine Scarp de'Tenis, which means Tennis Shoes, a monthly for and about the homeless and marginalized, the pope said that giving something to someone in need is "always right." (We're helped here by the translation in an article from Catholic News Service.)

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If "a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that's OK. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What 'happiness' do you seek in secret?" Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the "luckier" one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed on someone else.

Then he posed a greater challenge. He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.

The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own. This message runs through Francis' preaching and writings, which always seem to turn on the practical and  personal, often citing the people he met and served as a parish priest in Argentina.

His teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics has infuriated some conservative critics who accuse him, unfairly, of elevating compassion over doctrine. His recent statements on refugees and immigrants are the global version of his panhandler remarks -- a rebuke aimed directly at the rich nations of Europe and at the United States.

America is in the middle of a raging argument over poor outcasts. The president speaks of building walls repelling foreigners. That toxic mind-set can be opposed in Washington, but it can also be confronted on the sidewalk. You don't know what that guy will do with your dollar. Maybe you'd disapprove of what he does. Maybe compassion is the right call.


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