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Got some spare change?

Got some spare change?

Helping the homeless is not so much about dollars and cents, but real change

Tired of being an onlooker in debates about "the homeless"? Trying to figure out how you can help? Here's an experiment you can do yourself if you live or work in or near an urban area: Why don't you find out whether panhandlers with signs such as "Hungry, need a meal" or "Will work for food" mean what they say?

It's easy in some cities to run the first part of the experiment-to see who is hungry for a meal, rather than for money to buy drugs or alcohol. Lots of urban shelters for the homeless print cards with the address of the organization and a pointed offer: "Good for a night's lodging and two free meals." You can hand out cards to the first 10 panhandlers who approach you, gauge their reaction, and point them in the right direction if you detect any interest.

This experiment has been done and reported on at least several times. Last year Rita Kramer of City Journal, a New York City magazine, gave 20 homeless Manhattanites tickets from the McAuley Mission that promised them three nights' lodging, food and clothing, counseling, and further assistance. Only one person seemed interested.

I did a similar experiment in Washington, D.C., in 1991, passing out 10 numbered cards from the Gospel Mission there to individuals who asked for money. The numbers on the cards allowed me to call a few days later and see if anyone had come for free food and lodging. None had.

From 1989 through 1994 Bob Cote, who runs the Step 13 homeless shelter in Denver, passed out 90,000 coupons reading, "Good for One Free Meal." At the bottom of the coupon in smaller type came the words, "Need a job? A place to live? Step 13 offers you a chance to take charge of your life!" Over those five years 24 persons came for a free meal; of the 24, not one entered Step 13 and accepted work.

Critics of such experiments might say that a person can truly want a meal without wanting to go to a place where he will receive longer-term help. That's true, but as Christians we should be agents of change, not agents of small change. We should follow in the footsteps of Christ, who always emphasized the need to help souls as well as bodies, and who fed thousands, but only after he presented the gospel.

So go and do likewise; if there is not a Bible-based shelter in your city, you might propose to homeless sign-carriers that they join you at a nearby Burger King. Mr. Cote in Denver says, based on his experience, "the last thing he wants to do is chew on a Whopper and listen to you"-but you may get some takers.

Now, to the second part of the experiment: "Will work for food." One Austin businessman who has a regular need for unskilled labor told me he has stopped at freeway entrances 40 times to offer work to sign-carriers, and not one has accepted. (Some homeless individuals, of course, do want to work, but in Austin-as in other cities-they assemble early in the morning at one or two "work corners," where they are picked up by those who hire day laborers.)

These limited test results would not surprise the charity volunteers of a century ago; they tried to leave behind "a conventional attitude toward the poor, seeing them through the comfortable haze of our own intentions." In the 1890s people who gave to panhandlers were told to remember a common saying: "If drink has made a man poor, money will feed not him, but his drunkenness."

Those who gave thoughtlessly were not called compassionate but selfish, more concerned with the warm feeling they would have in giving than the cold feeling many recipients would have when they woke up in an alley with a hangover. One charity worker argued that the best way to help the poor was to "reform those mild, well-meaning, tender-hearted, sweet-voiced criminals who insist upon indulging in indiscriminate charity."

But I do want to stress that these test results are limited. We need more data, and you, kind reader, can help; let me know what you learn. If we find out that the hunger and desire for work is most often real, then we should step up activities to provide material and spiritual help to the street corner sign-carriers. If requests are typically a scam, however, we need to find ways to separate the needy from the greedy so that those who are truly in distress can speedily find help.