the little things: the last day I walked away (lesley miller).

Have you ever met one of those people who just seems to sparkle, who makes you feel like a million bucks just by being you?  Lesley is one of those people.  Even though she’s only been an in-person friend to me once, she is Pure Joy to be around.  So lean into what this mama-writer has to say today …because how we respond to poverty and homelessness is a problem many of us encounter every single day.    

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When I think about China, I think about gray weather and that woman in the subway exit near Tiananmen Square with her face flat on the cement. She had a young toddler with her. After I collected myself from almost tripping on them, I briefly considered my options. And then, I looked down on the pair of precious women living in a country with gender preferences, and for a moment I believed a lie learned somewhere along the way:  Ignore them because giving attention only encourages the problem.

So I kept walking.

It wasn’t my first experience with poverty, which is perhaps why the short encounter still hurts my heart all these years later. I should have known better.

I grew up in a beautiful small town in Southern California where the homeless weren’t welcome on neighborhood streets. It was a safe and wonderful place to grow up, but the city’s policies meant I wasn’t exposed to poverty until college. In Santa Barbara—another beautiful small town—the homeless line State Street with signs and guitars and bowls meant for donations. It was during those formative young adult years that I began thinking about how I, a young single female, should respond to people in need. I didn’t want to encourage the “problem” and I couldn’t help everyone, and I didn’t know who’d use my money for drugs. Every time I headed downtown I felt inner turmoil and immeasurable guilt.

Do I smile and say ‘God Bless You’ but not stop? Do I throw a quarter to everyone I pass? Do I pick one person and buy them a hamburger? Do I avoid eye contact? Do I hand over a dollar bill with instructions to use it wisely?  

Depending on the day (and whether my wallet was full) I used one of these replies, but never did I come to a conclusion as to the best one.  Encountering poverty made me uncomfortable no matter how I responded, so I threw a buck here and a dime there and tried not to think about it too much.

I can’t exactly remember what challenged me to specifically think about women and poverty differently—whether it was a book or a blog post or a documentary—but a few years after returning from China these words entered my life: “There is no excuse for ignoring women and children with an evident need for food or shelter.”

While there’s a lot about poverty I don’t understand, those words rang truer to me than anything else I’d ever been told. They also explained why I’d never been able to  forgive myself for not stopping to help the mom and daughter in the Beijing subway station.

When I think back to that muggy May day in China, and a mama trying so desperately to provide for her child, I no longer experience waves of regret. Instead, I remember that day as the last time I kept walking.

While I still can’t financially help every person I come across who needs help, my eyes are now open wide to the women and children on our streets because they are especially vulnerable. I pray for the right words to say and I never turn my eyes the other direction.  We have water and snacks in our car to offer, and I stop and ask how I can help get them shelter for the night. I’m learning how to safely ask if they’re being trafficked or living in danger, and who to call if I know I’m not prepared to help. I’m not usually their solution, but I try to be a bridge to get them to a safer place.

Poverty and homelessness and women on the street still make me very, very uncomfortable. And I’ve realized that’s exactly how I should feel.

email.lesley011Lesley Miller is a wife, mama and writer living in Santa Barbara, California. She loves running, the beach, avocados, Pilates and chocolate cake. When she’s not chasing children, she’s blogging atbarefooton45th.com or writing for various places around the web. You can also connect with her attwitter.com/lesleymillerThank you, Lesley, for your thought-provoking, moment-capturing words.  Leave Lesley some LOVE in the comment section today!

17 thoughts on “the little things: the last day I walked away (lesley miller).

  1. Powerful, Lesley. Choosing never to walk on by again is a great way to bring the love of Christ to those God puts in our lives. Thanks for the lesson.

  2. Ah Lesley, I tried commenting two days ago and my words got lost! Sorry, friend. Thank you for this – I so identify with the turmoil of wanting to do right and yet feeling like all the options are less than good. Your thoughts really help me.
    I am curious to hear how you have learned to ask people if they are safe or being trafficked – this was not something I had thought before to ask, but with the rising awareness of the problem of trafficking I realize that’s a huge blind spot on my part. What do you ask? And how did you find the right resources to point people to?

      1. I’ll have to write out a much longer answer to your question on my blog because I have a lot to say, but I’m definitely not an expert on trafficking. I am still learning! Basically, a few thoughts:
        1. If you come across a young woman on the streets, don’t assume she’s being trafficked but also don’t assume she’s NOT. Trafficking is a much bigger problem than we realize.
        2. Try to start conversation. Try to get to know her. If she’s asking for money, you might consider saying, “I don’t usually give cash to strangers, but I’d love to help you. Tell me what you need. Is it shelter? Food? Transportation?”
        3. In order to ask the above question, you must be prepared with a response. I am not prepared to shelter someone at my house, nor do I feel comfortable paying for a motel room for them. (Many women who are being trafficked will ask for you to pay for a motel room, and that’s often a sign something fishy is going on.) Instead, know the numbers/info for local women’s shelters and trafficking orgs, and have maps/ written info in an envelope in your car to provide them. This info should include the national trafficking hotline number.
        4. If you are suspicious that a girl is in trouble, you can simply say, “I know we don’t know each other well but I’m worried about you. Are you being trafficked?”
        5. If you’re a Christian, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and protection. I recently brought a girl into my home who I thought was being trafficked. Some people might say I made a risky decision bringing her home when I have young children, but I called a neighbor to come over. She was very high, and resisted help from a local shelter but she was open to prayer, and she left my house feeling loved, clean (she was able to shower) and with a full belly. I think this is what the Holy Spirit wanted and so I obeyed, while also taking some safety precautions.

        Does this help at all? I hope so!

    1. Chiming in to say that I’d also be interested in the specifics! I expect every situation is different, but I’d love to hear about some of your experiences, things you’ve learned to (not) say or do, things you’re prepared to offer, etc.

      1. Hola,

        Based on my own research into this question, I combined a couple ideas. I have an 8×11 printout of local shelters in my area, folded into thirds, like a little pamphlet that’s easy to hand someone. I paperclip a visa gift card inside (bought from Target, because I learned you can’t buy alcohol with them, but they can be used anywhere visa/debit cards are accepted. I’m not 100% sure about the alcohol thing. Either way, you can’t redeem them for cash.)

        One third of the pamphlet says “Do you need food or other basic items right now? This is a visa card with $XX on it to help you buy what you need.” You can include any personal note you want in this section, if you choose. Mine is a Bible verse.
        One third is a table labeled “Do you need a place to go?” with a list of shelters and their contact.
        The other third is a table labeled “Do you need food later?” with a list of food pantries.

        Because different food pantries and different shelters cater for different needs and genders/families and are open at different times, I further divided the shelters and contacts into what they offer and for who, so beginnings of the list would look like:
        ________________
        These are places in Raleigh that can help (and a policeman will take you there, so call):

        1. The Healing Place: overnight shelter (women and families), meals, addiction recovery
        123 Fake Street
        555-555-5555
        ____________________
        These are places with Food Pantries around Raleigh. Pay attention
        to when they’re open:

        1. Alliance of Aids and Services:
        Mon. 9am-4:30pm; T/W/Th 9am-5pm; Fri. 9am-4:30pm
        123 Fake St.
        555-555-5555
        __________________
        It’s a crazy simple layout but with a lot of useful information. I’d say with a clean, readable layout I was able to put about 10 contacts under each list. You’ll have to do a little research to make sure all information is up to date and relative to your area.

  3. I had a very similar experience – I was with a friend though, a fellow teacher, we were in southern China. She didn’t bypass the beggar and walked over to her, spoke with her and gave her a couple RMB. Afterward I asked her why – she gave a yuan or two to every beggar who asked us. She just shrugged “Jesus said to feed the hungry, give to the poor, and help those who are sick. He never asked us to find out why they were in those situations first.” I can’t say how badly convicted I felt. But I remember that vividly!

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