WHAT TO DO WHEN THE BEGGAR HAS A BABY
Not so long ago, in a Denver shopping center far from the gauntlet of the 16th Street Mall, a young man stood in the parking lot with a sign asking for money to feed his family. Next to him, a young woman sat under a tiny tree holding an infant.
They looked the definition of distraught, new to this humiliation. Their clothes were clean. They lacked physical signs of addiction, but of course, who knows?
Whatever was going on with the couple, it was the kind of scene that breaks your heart.
Several weeks later, in a different shopping center, a young woman stood with a sign asking for money, a baby in her arms. The woman appeared seriously frightened.
I had never personally come across such scenes. I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what to
do. When I walk about downtown in Denver and other cities, I have a plan. I politely decline to give. If I am moved to give, I support the charities that work with the population.
But what is one supposed to do when the beggar has a baby?
Panic scrambled my thinking. The first time I worried: Would a 911 call make things worse for the family? Would social workers take the child? The second time surfaced new fears: If I give, what if she gets loaded and neglects her baby? If I don’t, what if someone takes advantage?
Sometimes you don’t want to get involved, but feel you have to.
To answer this question, I talked to dedicated humanitarians from different backgrounds, including: Jerene Petersen, deputy director for community partnerships with the state Department of Human Services; Jeff Hunt, who directs Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute; Larry Smith, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Denver; and officials at the Mile High United Way.
Wonderfully, they offered an array of choices. Let’s work through them, from simple in- volvement to more advanced.
What about just giving money? Most of the folks I talked to said handing over cash is still the wrong call. Centennial’s Hunt is somewhat the exception, saying that Jesus expects action when you’re asked for help. Giving money is defensible; what the recipient does with the money is between her and God.
Yet a better strategy, Hunt said, is to prepare what his church network calls “blessing bags,” sacks filled with energy bars, toiletries and the like.
That second strategy is shared by the others. Food is a universal good. It helps. So do diapers, sunscreen and bus tokens. If you don’t have a bag readied to give, there’s always the grocery store.
Hunt’s church network also supports Denver Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities, which brings us to Smith, who offers this advice: Talk to and pray with the family. He says doing so is almost always a positive and moving experience.
But what if you’re not among the faithful? Or you want to do more?
Find out what is most needed right then and long term and direct them to organizations like Smith’s, which can help in both cases.
Don’t call 911. As Petersen, at DHS, puts it, it’s not a crime to be poor.
Do call 211. Pretty much anywhere in the country this free and confidential hotline has a lot of advantages. In our area, it’s run by the Mile High United Way. Its staffers have access to a massive database of services available. Operators will know where the shelter beds are, where to find addiction or abuse counseling and work or training opportunities. They’re skilled at connecting the distressed to those who can help. (The webpage also has options to search for services, or text or chat.)
Don’t expect immediate results. Those who beg are coming from places a lot of us can’t imagine. Not all are immediately able or ready to leave whatever’s got them down.
If nothing else, Petersen says, smile. Don’t look off in fright; it could be interpreted as disgust. Acknowledge the human being before you. A smile offers acceptance and a much-needed flash of solidarity.
For that young mother to get back on her feet, for that baby to have a chance, we’ve got to demonstrate to her our society is
worth the effort.