Christians are a tenderhearted, compassionate lot. God tells us over and over again in His Word that we ought to be kind, gentle and generous. But we're also supposed to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). It is very easy to mean to do well but to actually do harm.
Our hearts go out to people who are suffering and we want to help. But we must be cautious in how and when we try to help. I've found that you could give money to a beggar and go away feeling satisfied, when your attempt to help has only lined a drug dealer's pocket. Or you could be humiliated by a predator who doesn't want a meal, but who will do a professional job of raking your heart over hot coals to extract money from you for his next drug fix.
Over the years I've come to realize that I just can't give cash to people who are likely to be substance abusers. Someone who is yearning for that next drink or fix isn't going to waste good money on food. Whatever I give will only extend the suffering of that person and give him or her another excuse to not seek help.
I found I couldn't even safely give anything that could be exchanged for cash. I gave a drunk a heavy coat one cold winter day, and the next time I saw him, he was wrapped in the same inadequate windbreaker, shivering. When I asked him what happened to the coat, he just looked away and sobbed. He had sold it. He admitted that when you've got to have a drink, you'll do things that don't make sense -- like sell the coat off your back on a cold night. So I gave him a coat too shabby to be worth selling. In spite of encouragement to get help, he never did. The police found his body some months later.
One day last summer I was on my way into the supermarket when I was approached by a man who told a sob story about just having driven his family to this state from 1,000 miles away. Now he was out of money and his children hadn't eaten today. I told him I would be glad to sit down and have a hamburger with him and his two boys. Then he produced the other five children and his wife. I started to be a little suspicious. I kept telling him that there would be no money in it for him. The burgers were what I was offering and that was all. But he kept plying me with urgent pleadings for money.
When the burgers arrived, his wife tried to return them to get the money. I told the fast food restaurant supervisor not to give them a refund or exchange, and then made a quick exit. They made a scene and were hustled off by some security guards. Evidently they were well known by the local merchants and someone had called the security guards. I went home humiliated and hurting, but wiser. I had meant well, but all I had accomplished was to annoy the local merchants. But now I was more aware of urban predators.
The situation is not hopeless. There are safe and effective ways to help those in need. You can make a difference. The first thing to do is to ask our Heavenly Father to intervene in that person's life. Another thing you can do is to contribute to an aid organization whose effectiveness is known. A single handout may make you feel good, but it does not really help those who are facing long-term problems and addictions. Find out about the shelters and aid agencies in your area and point those in need to the appropriate one. For many problems, it takes day-to-day interaction over a long period of time to really help those who can be reached -- and that can really best be done by those who have the time and the training.
Please don't let these stories scare you off from giving, but hopefully after reading this and the accompanying article, your aid can be given wisely and effectively.