After we got married last year, my husband and I moved into a small but just-right-for-us downtown apartment. Our city is a university town of about 80,000 during the school year. We can see WWU on the hill behind us, a couple of miles away. Josh has a short drive to the hospital and I (lucky duck) live only a ten minute walk away from my downtown office.
I love my morning commute–even in the rain. I feel like I get to the office in a better mood for having spent a few minutes outdoors, and I’m hoping the mile round-trip will help slow the typical post-wedding weight gain. Downtown is kind of a busy, bustling place, and not all of the buildings and people I walk past are picturesque. My six-block route takes me past five bars, two clubs and a recovery center. Within the radius of a couple of blocks there is also a rescue mission and Opportunity Council buildings. In the morning dark of winter, I noticed people re-packing bags or rolling up blankets after having spent the night in a doorway. I began avoiding the side of the street with the large, out of business retail building, because its overhang area often smelled like vomit or urine. At night, I avoided the same block because of the people loitering outside the bars.
There are a few panhandlers, but most people don’t ask for money, they’re just looking for somewhere dry they can stay for the night. Some look like they are on their way somewhere else, but others are regulars, with tents pitched under the bridge, or near the outlet for Whatcom Creek. People who work with the rescue mission tell me not to give money–that the people who ask for handouts are the ones who’ll just spend it on alcohol or drugs.
A few months ago I was approached by a tearful girl in her mid-twenties. She wore one of those puffy coats with fur on the collar, a wide-purple ear warmer, and her blonde hair was pulled neatly up into a pony tail. She didn’t look particularly homeless, that is, her clothes were clean, and she looked like she had just showered. She wanted two dollars (just two dollars) so that she could put gas in her car to get home. I tried to be kind when I told her I didn’t have any cash, but the thing is, I saw her before she saw me, and she didn’t put her cry-face on (didn’t, in fact, seem even remotely distressed) until after she spotted me.
I’ve seen that same girl more than a dozen times since November, and she often tells a different story. One morning as she was hitting up another innocent bystander, a man came charging out of a nearby Starbucks, shouting, “Don’t give her money! She’ll only …” I rounded the corner and missed the rest of the confrontation.
I’ve run the gamut of emotions–pity, anger, contempt. It wasn’t until a co-worker commented, “Well, Jesus said, ‘Give to the one who asks,’ not, ‘Give to the one who is telling the truth’” that I thought about Jesus’ response to an addict. My father-in-law, a pastor who works in both the county jail and the state penitentiary told me just to approach her, and ask to pray for her. To actually pray with her there on the street corner in front of the sporting goods store, if she’ll let me. My husband reminded me that money is only a temporary fix for her. What she needs is Jesus.
Since having those conversations with people I trust, I’ve seen her another three or four times. I keep losing my nerve. She always manages to catch me when I’m in a hurry, or not prepared to meet her. I feel a little inadequate to help her. I worry about her response. I’ve been troubled over the harassed and helpless of downtown for months, and now that I have a concrete task, I’m afraid to do it.