All I wanted to do was get some groceries, a bite to eat and then head back to the Geez office for a board meeting. I had conquered the grocery-getting and was working on satisfying the rumbling in my stomach when my oh-so-simple plan was interrupted.

Yesterday at Safeway an older woman in a navy windbreaker, sweatpants, neon skirt and torn sneakers shuffled her way around the tables by the Starbucks station. She held out her hand that contained a quarter and a dime to a guy enjoying a coffee and a newspaper. He looked up at her with wide eyes and then furrowed brow as he tried to make out her slurred words and muffled sounds. He soon looked back at his newspaper and the woman became invisible.

She tried her luck with the next man sitting alone who had already been shifting in his chair. He was staring so intensely at his book without blinking and I began to wonder if he was attempting to see through it to the scuffed-up floor below. Obviously the woman would get nowhere with this guy and so she dropped her hand by her side and continued her shuffling.

I was the only option left and so new I was next. She came to me without making eye contact and went for round three. Thirty-five cents rested in her palm and crooked fingers. I couldn’t understand her but knew by her outstretched arm that she wanted money.

“What do you want money for,” I asked. I admit that I was suspicious of where she might spend it. She mumbled something and then pointed to my partially eaten sandwich. Instead of giving money I offered to share my sandwich with her. She gladly accepted, sat down next to me and took a bite. She picked up a mustard packet and attempted to open it but her fingers were her own enemy. She handed it to me and opened her sandwich.

We sat in silence for the most part as conversation seemed pointless. I asked her if she liked her sandwich. Without a word, she looked at me in the eyes for the first time and as the corners of her mouth turned upwards she exposed her four teeth. Her eyes twinkled and she reminded me of a child who was holding in a secret she wanted to tell so badly.

Panhandling is forcing people to look and think about poverty. It is hard to ignore when it stares you in the face and asks for money.

Some, especially business owners, say we need to combat panhandlers, or at least not encourage them because they scare people, threaten their safety and drive business away. See here.

Other communities, Like Bloomington, put legislation in place to curb “aggressive panhandling.”  In Bloomington, “aggressive” includes approaching an individual who is “in the sidewalk dining area of a restaurant.”

I haven’t seen them yet, but apparently Winnipeg is experimenting with kiosks operated by the downtown business folks to solicit money for employment programs, such as those offered by The Salvation Army.

Are these appropriate human-to-human responses to physical need? Street minster Shane Claiborne, suggests that Christians not use “brokers” to provide hospitality to strangers in need, but to do it directly ourselves, as Christ demonstrated. “When the church becomes a place of brokerage rather than an organic community, she ceases to be alive,” he says.

When we rely on agencies (soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc.) the “rich and poor are kept in separate worlds and inequality is carefully managed but not dismantled,” says Claiborne in Irresistible Revolution, page 159.

The Columbus Catholic Worker says, “There are no easy answers to panhandling. This is why the Catholic Worker movement has always stressed the importance of personal involvement with the poor.” I’m still confused by it all. But I know I’m not alone. – Megan Kamei, editorial assistant