I was in Liverpool city centre recently and was concerned to see more people than usual begging in the main shopping area. On this particular morning I wasn't actually approached for money. Instead the dejected individuals merely sat hunched forward on their chosen patch of pavement, with the hard ground and their threadbare clothing providing little comfort against the cold wind.
Some did ask passers-by for money, but others simply seemed to rely on being noticed. Perhaps they hoped that their silence would speak louder than words. The tactic had obviously worked for a few, as their tins contained at least a meagre handful of coins.
Outside one of the big stores, a colourful and compact bundle of assorted clothes and blankets lay outstretched and motionless amid the hustle and bustle of the city. Was the figure concealed, mummy-like, in its ragged wrappings male or female? Maybe only the young girl who sang and played her guitar nearby knew the answer. Pallor and weary-eyed loneliness marked most of their faces.
When we look at these unfortunate souls, sometimes we cannot help but wonder if they are genuine. Will the money you give them go towards their next meal or will it go towards the next fix of whatever has brought them to their current predicament? We do not know – and we cannot judge.
As Christians, we should give willingly and try to give people the benefit of the doubt – 'to give and not to count the cost'. But unfortunately our hearts are often hardened by the few who do play the system. However, anybody can find themselves in difficulty or fall from grace. Obviously, being destitute is not a career choice. Even the most well-educated and wealthy individual can meet with hard times and lose their health, livelihood, home and family. It could happen to any one of us.
When we see people begging for food and money or sleeping rough, it really is a case of 'there but for the grace of God go I' and we should at least try to provide some sort of help or comfort where we can. It does not always have to be money – it could be a sandwich, a cup of tea, or just showing the person some respect. A polite 'good morning' or 'good afternoon' costs us nothing, but it may mean a great deal to someone who in all probability spends most of the day being avoided or ignored.
Thankfully, there are organisations that do offer warmth and shelter to those in need. In Liverpool, for instance, the Whitechapel Centre has a 'no second night on the streets' policy and will afford temporary shelter to people in a crisis situation. Parishes, with their St Vincent de Paul organisations, and religious communities do fantastic work.
The present refugee crisis means that we are probably going to be encountering many more desperate people on the streets and the Pope has sent out a global challenge to help them which we really cannot ignore. We have to decide, as individuals and on a wider scale, how we are going to react. Will we see the tragic situations that are being played out daily in the media as problems for others to solve or will we, as individuals, try to share their burden? After all, the more isolated a person is from society, the less likely they are to ever become part of it again.