Coffee or Quarters?

It’s Boston hot.* With high humidity even mid-eighties feels uncomfortable. As it goes to the high eighties you’re dripping.

Give me the dry heat of Phoenix and 122 degrees any day. Really.

With the beginning of summer the visible homeless population has increased ten-fold. On my three-minute walk from subway to office I pass by 12 homeless people in varying stage of wakefulness. Some groggy eyed; others loud, ushering in the morning light with raucous interactions helped along by the strong smell of marijuana; three of them curled up, asleep in the doorways of nearby businesses.

It’s never easy. I don’t know much about the homeless, but I do know that there’s nothing simple about it. I do know that the issue is multifactoral and my response is shaped by the complexity of the issue.

quarterI’ve discovered something in the past couple of years as I daily see the faces and slowly learn names of some of the homeless in this area. I’ve discovered that giving quarters doesn’t work well for me. Because a quarter is too easy.

What’s hard is stopping and offering coffee.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” That’s hard for me.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” means a couple of things. It means I’ll get to work later than I wanted. It means I may have the inconvenience of waiting in a line. It means I need to pay attention as I ask what kind of coffee — Cream? Sugar? Hot? Iced? It means they become a person. It means I have to engage the humanity of the person.

And a person is much harder to ignore than a body.

A body is just a body. But a person has a name, likes, dislikes, a personality shaped by life and their response to life, a temper, a mouth, language and more.

A person challenges me to see through the eyes of God, something that isn’t easy. A person is my equal. When I begin to see someone as a person, not a body, not a statistic, I move into uncomfortable and necessary relationship. It forces me to face my prejudice and privilege.

Seeing someone as a person reminds me that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

So offering coffee is my new response. I don’t always offer it, and even when I offer it, it’s not always accepted. But overall, “No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” is teaching me far more than giving out quarters ever could. 

What do you think? How do you, or would you, respond? 

*I qualify heat by describing it as Boston hot as opposed to Djibouti hot which I’m learning defies imagination.

13 thoughts on “Coffee or Quarters?

  1. Such a dilemma. I found the homelessness in London the hardest to cope with when I returned from Pakistan to the UK. I couldn’t understand how a ‘rich’ country could have homeless people. I like your coffee solution but you’re right we so rarely want to stop and take the time. Always too busy rushing somewhere.


  2. When we were living overseas, we would pass many homeless people, (including abandoned children), just on the way to the market. It was a daily, in-your-face reality and every follower of Jesus was forced to figure out what it meant to “give to everyone who asks.” Do we give money to the woman holding the drugged baby, especially when I learn that she has borrowed that baby? What if I figure out that her only other means to feed her real children would be prostitution? These are hard issues. I knew a man who took that verse literally, but never thought that it required the giving of money. If anyone asked him for money, he would give respect by talking to them like an actual human being and not an annoyance. While I love this, I wonder how it works to engage in conversation with someone who is high or severely mentally ill. Maybe it is a risk that God wants us to take? I must admit that while I would gladly take a 10 year old, North African street kid to the corner store to buy him breakfast, I don’t know if I would do the same for a 30 year old American man who may or may not be drunk. We need wisdom at the moment just as much as we need general policies.


  3. Marilyn, I ‘m sure that many of us are alike in that we face the homeless problem with conflicting thoughts and emotions. On one of the thoroughfares we often travel there is a young homeless man who stands on one of two corners. He sleeps under a bridge. He has been doing this for at least 15-20 years. In our city there are shelters for the homeless like him. The Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army to name two. There is a place for them to go for showers, etc. and a medical clinic for the non-insured and needy. A church downtown provides a daily meal. Regular clothing hand-outs are provided by local churches in strategic locales. These are a few of the services that I am aware of. A city ordinance regarding the “pan-handlers” is in effect and periodically a policeman will come along and remove that person. Soon he will
    return. More often than not the policeman will turn his head the other way. What to do? I think about the beggars in Pakistan and remember once coming out of a super market in Karachi and approached by a beggar. Quickly we returned and bought some staples and handed them to the beggar. He refused our offer. He wanted money. Looking straight at him, I said, “I’m sorry. God bless you.” Later I learned that for most of the beggars it was a profession. A profession that was well organized and controlled. At the end of the day the beggars had to report to their “boss” with all their earnings for the day. He would then pay them a small sum from their begging. Thus the food I offered was refused. I sure don’t have the answers. Who does? How can I become the hands and heart of our compassionate God who loves each of us equally and without prejudice? (I do apologize for the length of this response.)


  4. We’re on home leave from Central Asia and my mom just loaned me “Same Kind of Different as Me” and the sequel. If you haven’t read it, please do. I’ll never look at homelessness the same again. My biggest take away was just not to judge the homeless. We have no idea what has led to their situation. Treat them as human and bless them with some money (or food, etc.), and let them use it as they choose, no conditions. Granted, I haven’t come across a homeless person since I read the book, so I’m just a lot of talk right now!


  5. Down in Alabama we get to enjoy the hot weather and high humidity for 4 months! Anyways, I know how it is to be homeless as I was homeless in Denver. It’s not fun when you walk around wondering what you will do with your life with no money.

    I would rather see resources like coffee be given to homeless people rather than money because some homeless people would use money to buy drugs, alcohol, or other things that made them homeless in the first place.


  6. Lowell has collected lots of interesting stories over the years as he’s interacted with people in this way! It’s been a huge lesson for me to watch him. I’ve learned a lot. Every person has a story. Every person’s story has plot twists. A friend of mine ends every email he sends with this quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” (Philo of Alexandria)


  7. I think you are brave to offer coffee, but for conversation (which also points out my fear and justifications)…you are around a lot of people on a busy city street. When I’ve run into homeless people I’ve very often been the only one, or close to it who is not homeless. My point? As I said, justification as to why I don’t initiate conversation at 5′ tall and 100 pounds, but instead send money and clothes to the shelter. And yes, I agree, dry heat is so much easier.


  8. Hey, hey, and what about Sindhi heat?? Hot and dry, like 44C as I remember, for 4 to 5 months, then hot and humid for another 4, then a lovely dust storm to usher in the brief fall weather about November. But I don’t so much remember the misery of the heat as lovely evening visits, sitting on a charpai in a courtyard, drinking cold lassi.
    Your comments about homeless people reminded me of the family with 2 teenaged daughters who entertained us in their lovely home, many years ago. I was blown away when they told us they had been living in a homeless shelter not too many years before. He had lost his job. They had gotten themselves into debt, and ended up losing their house. For them it had been a turning point bringing them back to God. For me it was such an eye-opener, making me look at homeless people with a very different attitude.


  9. Haha, love the shout out to Djibouti heat! I love this in the Lewis quote: everlasting splendors. Wow, what a way to look at people, myself included. And, I’ve never thought about this before, but what about doing that sometimes here? Taking someone to a stall to get a Coke or a packet of cookies. I’m usually too busy/selfish to take that time, but I’m challenged to now. Maybe I should (hesitatingly) ask you to hold me to it – check back in after a week or so and see if I’ve followed through.


    1. Yikes….Only if you’ll do the same with me. It’s the selfishness that confronts me – 5 minutes later to work…WOW. Like I have all this stuff that can’t wait 5 minutes, but I justify it. It’s one of the ways blogging challenges me – as I put stuff out there, it holds me accountable. On the heat…I was compelled!! I thought – there is no way I can talk about Boston’s heat without putting in a word for Djibouti – another way that I am challenged through blogging! So thank you!


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