Sunday, May 12, 2013

The homeless at the door

Every day, a man who appears to be homeless sits on a curb near a retail store in a strip mall, holding a sign that reads "help needed." The mall is in a mid-size town in the San Francisco Bay Area. The man has been appearing for more than a year. He also makes daily rounds to other spots in town.

An owner of a retail store in the mall is conflicted in her attitude toward the man.

"I feel that his presence may cause people not to come into my store," she writes. Several times a day she walks by him as he sits on the curb -- and ignores him.

She has spoken about the situation to her landlord, who has called police. However, the police say the man has a right to be there.

"He is very intelligent," my reader writes. She's heard him debate with others quite articulately over his right to be there. She has also heard him tell people about the abuse he suffered as a boy. She indicates that he also "displays symptoms of mental illness."

"As a human being, I want to have compassion, but can't find it in my heart," she writes -- adding that as a Christian, her faith is important to her and causes her to struggle with her attitude toward the man. "It makes me feel mean when I walk by him several times a day and ignore him."

When situations arise that test the multiple values we hold, it can indeed be trying. The reader who owns the store would like to run a successful business that attracts customers so she can provide for herself and her family. For many people, the value placed on the health and well-being of their families tops their priorities.

Does this mean that their other values -- such as caring for others in need -- are somehow diminished because they come second? Not necessarily, although such situations as the store owner's do seem to be a test of how far she will go to honor her values.

It's understandable not to want someone who might make customers anxious loitering outside the door of a retailer. Still, we always have a right to choose whether and when to give to those asking for money.

This fellow, though, seems to be asking for "help." Presumably, the assumption is that he wants money. But if he is indeed homeless and mentally ill, perhaps there are other forms of help that the store owner might seek advice about in an effort to serve both the man's needs and her own. I'm not sure she can determine the state of his mental capacity on her own, but she should certainly be able to consult with public health officials about this issue.

If it's truly not the time it would take to address the issue, but instead the desire not to have the man scare off existing or potential customers with his presence, then to preserve her values of earning a livelihood and also helping those in need, the right thing could be to see if there's a way to help this fellow that in turn might result in helping herself. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


Is your reader expecting us to say that the right thing to do here was not to help him? Seeing how ignoring him and calling the police on him hasn't worked, maybe the right thing is turning the firehose on him instead?!? Your fellow human struggling alongside you is having difficulties and probably hungry. The right thing to do is to help him. You can decide how to do that. As a business owner, maybe you can put him to work. Maybe give him food that you'd otherwise have to discard or simply give him money so he can decide how to help himself.

Unless your reader caters to tourists, I doubt many San Fransiscans would actually choose not to do business with her because of homeless nearby...

William Jacobson, esq.
Anaheim, CA

WiserthanB4 said...

There’s no doubt that the homeless issue is a deeply complex one with no easy or simple answers.

I, too, am a Christian, and struggle in like manner as your store owner with what I should or should not do when confronted by a homeless person seeking help – though protecting my livelihood is not part of my struggle. Much of what makes the homeless issue complex is that “help” is relative. We may, rationally, think that giving food or money is automatically being “helpful,” when, in reality, we may just be encouraging the homeless person to keep on begging instead of making a true lifestyle change. Even Jesus asked a man, who had been sick for thirty-eight years, if he truly wanted to be made well (John 5). Change, even if the situation is miserable, is hard. That’s been proved out so many times with abusive situations, and even the homelessness issue.

Whether or not the homeless man has displayed indications of mental illness, it is not really safe, nor wise, for a woman to invite a man into her store to work for her. Oh that the world truly was that innocent and simple – but it is not.

As a Christian, the first thing to do is earnestly pray, asking the Lord for His wisdom for this particular situation. He knows best, and He certainly loves both the homeless man and the store owner. Hopefully, the owner can get the counsel of her church group, including her pastor. Is there a place to which she can refer the man to get help, such as a rescue mission, or another city outreach? Again, we have the “change” issue here – is the homeless man really looking for help to get out of his situation, or is he “content” to get by on daily begging?

Lastly, based on the article, it doesn’t seem as if the woman has actually spoken with the man herself. Since he is there regularly, she could, if she feels comfortable and safe doing so, begin by asking his name, and asking him what kind of help he is looking for. Then, if true, she could tell him that she is praying for him. But even this interaction has complexity, especially when dealing with a stranger, and more especially when a woman is dealing with a stranger who is a man.

As to the validity of simply praying for him, and maybe doing no more than that at this point, I will pull another example from the Bible. In the book of Acts, chapter 3, Peter and John were going to the temple in Jerusalem. There, at the temple gate called “Beautiful,” a man, lame from birth, asked them for money. Peter told him that he had nothing to give him except a prayer in Jesus’ name that he would be healed. The man was healed and walked for the first time in his life. It’s not a precise analogy, of course, but the point is, again, that help is relative and every situation is different.

I always try to put myself in the shoes of the homeless person (what if it were me who needed help?). What kind of assistance would I want? Well, from my current vantage point, I would want to be directed to a place where I could get work help, hygiene help, and a chance to be safe and get a fresh start in my life. But, I’ll tell you what – I wouldn’t get in anyone’s car to get to that help. I would want a bus pass and clear directions to get to the help at a local community center. So, that brings us to our involvement in solving this issue as ordinary citizens, who, collectively, even as private citizens, can do something, even if it is to make things better, smarter, more efficient in existing government programs. Don’t assume that the local government or police know better than you. Yes, listen to their experience, but think for yourself as well. What would you want done for you – available to you, if you were homeless? What is wise – what is best – for everyone? What needs to be fixed? Where are the holes in the system? Is there a system? I think every rational being wants to see an end to homelessness. So, fellow citizens, how do we get there?

Quirkybutsmart said...

She says she feels guily for ignoring him. Jesus would not have do so. He healed that lame man...who did not wish to be healed. She can speak to him. He seems to have harmed no one.

Maybe she should feel guilty!

WiserthanB4 said...

Actually, the sick man (1st example with Jesus from John 5), did not say “no” to Jesus’ offer of healing. He took it gladly, and had, apparently, been waiting for healing, and coming to that special pool, for a long time. There were others at the pool that day, sick, blind, lame. The book of John records no further interaction by Jesus with those others there who were also in need of healing.
When we come to the book of Acts, with Peter and John at the gate Beautiful, there is an instance where perhaps even Jesus, before He was crucified, walked by that lame man many times before on His way into the temple. We would not say of Jesus that He ignored the man, but we could say of Him that it wasn’t the “right” time for Him to heal that man before. The “right” time came on the day, after Jesus had been crucified, risen from the dead and eventually ascended into heaven, when Peter and John entered the temple, and they were led specifically to enter into a divine conversation with the lame man, and the man was healed.
No, guilt on the store owner’s part is not what should motivate her to do anything. She should really ask the Lord what He would have her do. That’s called “walking by faith.” Faith is our response to God’s direction, in accordance with His character and what He has already said in the Scriptures as direction to us. When we ask the Lord for wisdom, He promises to give it to us (James 1). The store owner needs wisdom from God, and then act according to that. First, she has to earnestly ask for that wisdom.

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