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Watercolor painting of medieval castle at sunrise landscape
Watercolor painting of medieval castle at sunrise landscape
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives
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Different Time and Place, Same Dilemmas

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In the 33 years since I’ve been on-and-off writing about homelessness issues, many readers have asked the same questions and reported the same challenges to conscience: Should I give to the person at the street corner or the freeway entrance? How can I discern who will use a dollar for food and who will use it for drugs? When I give, am I doing it primarily to feel good or to help a fellow human?

Some readers have also looked for broader public policy or theological implications: Do any programs turn a hand-out into a hand up? Do any governmental programs work? Why does nothing seem to work? How can we help the mentally ill? Should we give addicts drugs? Should poverty be primarily a church concern or a governmental matter? Do Catholic and Protestant approaches differ?

A third of a century seems to me like a long time, but by biblical standards it’s the Hebrew word hevel, which appears 38 times in Ecclesiastes and translates as “vapor” or “wisp—so, seeking a longer perspective, I went back to rules and books written in England from 1350 to 1375 A.D. It turns out that they had concerns and controversies similar to ours.

For example, London officials declared in 1359 that many homeless people were begging “so as to have their own ease and repose, not wishing to labour or work for their sustenance, to the great damage of such the common people; and also, they waste divers alms, which would otherwise be given to many poor folks, such as lepers, blind, halt, and persons oppressed with old age and divers other maladies, to the destruction of the support of the same.”

So, the same two reasons that today keep many with money from handing it to panhandlers: Will recipients use it just for drugs or alcohol, and would it be better to give it to those with disabilities? And if a solicitor did seem sick, could we trust our senses? Writer William Langland in 1362 worried that those with feigned illnesses produced “scepticism and confusion” in would-be donors. Langland’s thinking about this problem appeared in his major work, Piers Plowman, one still studied by English majors and graduate students.

Langland wrote it in the 1360s and revised it during the next two decades as he thought about the spiritual and material responsibilities of Christians. Overall, he praised those “who live from the labor of their hands,/ Who honestly earn their wages and wealth,/And humbly live by love and the law.” He criticized “beggars and tramps…Unless obliged by debility to beg./ For to beg and to cadge without conscionable cause Is a devilish practice that deprives the poor/ And beguiles the giver against his will,/ Who would help out others in greater hardship.”

Because the medieval English is hard to understand I’ll quote from a modern translation by Peter Sutton: The new but accurate wording sounds at times sounds like a dialogue between a hard head and a soft heart. Hard: “Beggars and tramps were bustling about,/Their bellies and bags crammed to bursting with bread,/Telling falsehoods for food, fighting in taverns.” Soft: “Show love and relieve the poor,/And share out the gifts that God has granted.”

The battle goes on inside the head of protagonist Piers Plowman, who has just put several homeless men to work: “What’s the best thing to do with bothersome beggars/ Who are certain to slacken as soon as you’ve gone?/ tis only misery that makes them so meek/ And willing to work for me, wanting their food./ Yet they’re brothers who were bought by God with his blood, /And Truth once taught me to love all types/ And always to help when any are in trouble…. Love them and leave the lashes to God: ‘Vengeance belongeth to me, and I will repay.’”

Piers expects resistance from those homeless men “sozzled” from drinking, so he says, “Unless you leap up and lend me your labor,/You’ll not have a grain that’s been grown in this ground./You can die in a ditch and the devil can take you.” But he worries that he’s being too hard on them: Some may have been “mistreated by fortune/ Or sucked dry by swindlers.” He offers a street-level solution: resolve to “seek their acquaintance./ For Christ’s sake share with them comfort and kindness…They may have committed a crime or done malice,/ But If you wish to gain the grace of God,/ Live by his Gospel and be loved by the lowly.”