Blanket Statements

Every day on my walk to work, I pass the same three homeless people. First, outside Uprising Muffin Company, the thin, bearded man with inward-leaning legs, who sits holding an empty Starbucks cup. Sometimes it’s full of coffee. Second, the man on 12th Street whose massive pile of boxes serves as his bed, jutting several feet into the sidewalk as one approaches the line of gourmet food trucks. He usually leans against a telephone pole, arms crossed and smiling beneath his orange beanie, watching pedestrians make their way out of the metro station. Occasionally he’ll still be in bed, staring up at the sky with a grin, wrapped in his sleeping bag with his fingers interlaced. The third homeless person lies on a bench near the green space at the intersection of I Street and New York Avenue, still wrapped in a recycled-wool blanket every morning. I’ve never seen his or her face.

I don’t actually know if these three people have no homes, though my first instinct was to call them homeless. I don’t know a better word. We don’t really have a word for it. “Homeless” may have started out as a kinder version of what we had before, but it’s old enough now that we don’t hear what it’s made of: no home.

A few years ago I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t give cash to people who asked for it. This was partly because I truly didn’t carry cash, as I told them. It was also to make things easier for myself. There were many needy people at my college campus, and I felt wildly inconsistent in my giving. It always felt like I was setting up some kind of sick competition in my mind: which of these people deserves these bills the most? Which can make her case most convincingly?

I worked on campus and had substantial financial aid, but I was well aware that it didn’t offset my privilege, not by a long shot. My giving habits were nonetheless erratic. Once, I took $40 out of an ATM at the request of the Elm Street “Poetry Lady,” for a poem and with her enthusiastic promise that she’d say hello to me but never again ask me for money. When she approached me later that week, with no memory of our encounter, I admit that I was annoyed. Shortly after, I decided not to give to anyone, out of fairness and because, I decided, I was working towards societal good by getting an education.

So, after that phase of your education is complete: what next? Is it enough to be working in the public sector? Does that job fill the same role–“I’m donating my time, fighting the bigger fight”? Is it enough to save money now, rise up in the ranks, become a philanthropist later? A ‘real’ paycheck comes with questions that don’t only include how much rent we can afford, whether happy hour can replace Trader Joe’s IPA, or figuring out what “investing” is. It also means we can, and should, and in many ways must ask: To whom will I give?

I usually try to hold off on blanket statements about millennials. Here, though, I will say that we millennials are generous, albeit selectively so. We are, apparently, overrepresented as donors on crowdfunding sites, those feel-good alcoves of our native habitat, the Internet. More importantly, they are alcoves where we can track our impact and see exactly where those donated dollars are going.

We carry less cash. We use debit, credit, Apple Pay, Venmo. If it’s easy to give, on a mobile app or with a single click, we often do, and what’s more, we like to see our transactions pop up in neat, curated pie charts on Mint or Pocketguard or Simple Bank. We use credit, and we like to get credit too. In a flurry of economic advocacy after the inauguration, I signed up to donate to Greenpeace and the ACLU, and they oblige me every week or so with emails updating me on their progress. Thank you for your contribution. Here’s what we’re up to. You’ve made this happen. Go you!

It’s rare that I see anyone give cash to the homeless people I pass every day. It’s even rarer for the giver to be under the age of 30. We have less money, true, but I can’t help but feel that we millennials don’t just require the transparency of knowing exactly what our money ended up. We also crave the pat on the back from doing the right thing. One of my friends in college once confided that she never gives to people on the street because “what if they just buy crack? I don’t wanna subsidize that.” I shrugged and nodded.  Why give if you weren’t sure?

Better, we concluded, to give to NGOs, advocacy groups, social justice funds. We were liberals. We would give to the system, and make it better, and the system would give to the homeless and the needy on our behalf.

I have little trouble identifying as a liberal. I grew up, for the most part, in a liberal, affluent university town. I went to an overwhelmingly liberal school. From everything I’ve read, liberal systems improve quality of life, reduce financial inequity, increase citizens’ safety and promote gender equality. I proudly volunteer for the Democrats and believe that social welfare programs are a fundamental component of government. Not to steal Mia Thermopolis’ rhetoric (see: The Princess Diaries, Walt Disney Pictures), but I also start most of my sentences with “I.” However subliminal the effects may be, change and crumpled dollar bills dropped into cups or pressed into the palms of nomadic subway evangelists are a reflection of me, of my goodness, of my generosity.

It’s hard to tell what the true motivating factor was when, about a week ago, I decided to start carrying cash to give to people on the street. Was it a recognition of my (dare I say?) liberal tendency to ignore the immediate need in favor of fixing the system? A rush of warmth when I gave a ten-dollar bill to the veteran on the subway who staggered through the car with a cane, asking for spare change?

It isn’t clear whether liberals or conservatives are truly “more charitable.” (A lot depends, I’ve learned, on whether you count churches as charities.) But there is a certain truth in Nicholas Kristof’s accusation that we liberals are “bleeding heart tightwad[s].” It seems to ring true for millennials as well; or at least when the wad in question is made of physical, tangible paper. At least, it rang true for me. That is, until last week, when I – for better or for worse – took cash out of the ATM and began giving to every needy person on the street who asked.

It’s a flawed project. There’s a lot that I haven’t decided yet. How much do I give? The same amount to every person? Do I have a budget per se? What if they’d prefer food? How can I make sure that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way, that this doesn’t become the only thing I’m doing? Originally, I said I wouldn’t tell anyone, either, but I’ve clearly gone back on that one. The more important question there is: How can we walk the fine line between generosity and self-congratulation? Is there any donation that is too tiny to make an impact? How can we build habits of giving that are sustainable, and humble, and appropriate?

I’m still figuring this out, and it will take time. Maybe I’ll re-chart my course in a few weeks, months, years, or when someday arrives and I can be a “real” philanthropist. I set only two hard and fast rules: Make eye contact. Give to everyone, but only those who explicitly ask. I give to the thin man outside the Muffin Company, but only when his hand is outstretched. I don’t give to the man outside the metro, who stands grinning by his massive bed but requests nothing; I respect that he isn’t asking.

One final thought with I as the subject, because in the end, I can speak only as I:

There is a statue downtown, near the Gallery Place metro station, of a person lying on a bench, wrapped in a blanket. It is called, I know now, “Homeless Jesus.” Unlike the bench sleeper I pass every morning, its feet protrude from under the sculpted metal fabric, toes curled away from the ground.


Image: “Homeless Jesus” by Timothy P. Schmalz. G Street, Washington, D.C.  KRIS ANKARLO/NEWSRADIO 99.1