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Tuppence a bag

All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares.  And though you can't see them, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares.

Two days ago, as I was walking back to my hotel for the night, a man stopped me.  He told me that he and his wife were looking for a place to stay for the night.  They found a hostel that would put them up for $15 each but he didn't have any money.  The two of them hadn't had anything to eat all day.  I didn't have any cash on me, but there was an ATM nearby.  I withdrew some cash and gave it to him so he and his wife could stay at the hostel.

I don't know if this man's story was true.  I don't know if he was lying to me.  Perhaps he was addicted to some drug or other and would tell any lie he could in order to get money for his next hit.  There could be any number of explanations for why he would lie to me and ask for money.  And I don't know if he was being honest or not.  I didn't see his wife that he spoke of.  He didn't say where she was and I didn't ask.  But my point is that I don't need to know.

If he was telling the truth and there was a wife and they were going to use the money for staying at the hostel, then I feel good for having helped someone out in a time of need.  If it was a lie and he was going to use the money for something else, what is it to me?  Either way I have $40 less to my name--whether he was telling the truth or lying.  I am not harmed by his falsehood--if it was a falsehood.  I would be willing to give the money if it were true, so why should I withhold the money when I fear that perhaps he may not be telling the truth?  What he does with the money is his own affair.  My affair is to decide whether or not to help him.

To be honest, when I see someone without a place to live, I don't want to give them money.  I want to take them into my home and give them a place to stay.  I want to cook for them and feed them nice, warm meals.  I want them to feel valued as a human being.  Our economic system literally treats poor people worse than animals because animals don't need money to eat.  I want to provide them with clothing and a shower to clean themselves off.  I want to help them find a means to support themselves and (if they have any) their family.  I want to put my wing around them and protect them from the elements.

My heart is full of compassion for people who go without.  At times it is almost unbearable.  I can't comfortably live my own life knowing that other people are going without common needs, such as food and shelter.  The man who approached me the other day said that he'd been trying all day to get some help and everyone else was mean to him.  And I'm sure they were.  I see how people treat people like that.  And I know I treat poor people like that most of the time.  In fact, walking home today there were three guys who asked me for money and I didn't give them anything.  I don't know why I didn't.  I don't know why I felt more compelled to help the man from the other day.  But I walked past these three men without giving them anything, and I felt awful for it.

But one thing stuck out to me.  The hostel he told me about he said cost $15 per person per night.  That's fairly believable, since a cheap motel might be twice that much and I imagine a hostel could be cheaper.  The hotel I'm staying at for my math conference is $150/night.  And that's the discounted rate that I got through the conference.  That's ten times as much as the hostel.  In other words, if I stayed in the hostel too, then I could afford to put up 9 homeless people in that hostel for the same price that I'm staying to house just myself for the week.  I think about things like that, and I feel guilty for it.

The song from Mary Poppins stuck out to me because the message of "tuppence a bag" is very real.  I donated money to a food shelter in Knoxville on multiple occasions.  They claimed to be able to provide 3 meals for $1.  I think that's extraordinary, but I know that there are cheap foods that can be served up in bulk like that.  And I think about that when I go to a restaurant and pay double digit numbers for food for just me alone.  I think about all of the people I could be feeding if I ate something cheaper and used the extra to help those less fortunate than myself.

Of course, all of these feelings are compounded now that I'm working with Lost-n-Found, and thinking more and more about homeless people.  I think about the inequity we have in our society.  I blog about equal rights for gay people, for trans people, for everyone.  And yet there's no equality for poor people.  Those who go without basic necessities just because of the economic system that we have set up as a society.  It's so sad.  It pulls at my heart strings.  I know that we can do better.  I don't know what the answer is.  I don't know the best way to end (or curtail) hunger and poverty.  But I do know that what we're doing isn't working, and we need to do better.  We need to be less selfish.  We need to be less worried about making money and spending it on self-centered things.  We need to be more worried about other people and their needs.  We need to look to those who are less fortunate.  We need to extend the hand of compassion.  We need to share the wealth that we have, the food and shelter that others lack.

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