Teaching Jim to Fish for Himself

Ann-Marie Murrell
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Posted: Jul 17, 2012 12:01 AM

I lost my compassion for homeless people in three phases. 

The first phase was when I saw my first batch of homeless in Hollywood, California in 1982. 

I was barely 20 years old and had just driven cross-country from Texas to California—leaving college, an apartment full of furniture and a cat—to pursue my dreams of an acting career.  I was amazed that most of the homeless people in Hollywood were my age and younger and they were either runaways and/or drug addicts.

In the early 80’s, Hollywood Boulevard was nothing like the Disney-esque, tourist-friendly trap it is today.  Back then, in addition to the homeless kids who sat slumped along the star-lined sidewalks begging for money, your shopping choices consisted mostly of either porn or pawn shops or really bad food. 

Despite the dirt and danger, I loved hanging out in Hollywood. 

The car I had driven to California broke down soon after I arrived so the RTD bus line was my main mode of transportation.   I never worked less than 2 or 3 jobs at a time but I still managed to spend almost every spare moment at Grauman’s Chinese Theater looking at the hand and footprints of the stars-- until those homeless kids finally got to me.

At first I gave them whatever pocket change I had.  After all, it was the “humanitarian” thing to do, right?  But one day it hit me that there I was, a young girl, completely alone in California, no car, working several jobs and taking classes in-between.  So why should I give one penny of my hard-earned money to these slugs who were practically laying on the ground every day asking for handouts? It made me angry. 

My solution:  I stopped spending time at the Chinese Theater.  

The second phase of my homeless frustrations occurred years later when I was a newly divorced single mom living in Hollywood. 

The best word to describe this part of my life was “racing”.  From the crack of dawn to the end of the evening, I had to watch the clock every hour and minute to juggle all my responsibilities—whether it was getting my son to school and myself to work, or picking him up after school, taking him to his after-school program and rushing back to work; basically every hour of every day was a race to stay ahead. 

So I quickly became very resentful of all the homeless people—again my own age—who hung out in front of my local gas station begging for money. 

There I was, an exhausted, broke, very stressed single mom, tightly clutching the hand of a little boy who was wearing hand-me-down clothes and shoes that always seemed to be too small for his growing feet--and yet able-bodied grown men would dare to ask ME for MY money.

One day I finally snapped and said, “If I had any money to give, don’t you think I should give it to my little boy instead of you?  What would YOUR mother do?”

My solution:  I changed gas stations.

The third phase of my homeless issues happened when I was in my 40’s working in a (very liberal) church.  I was the Children’s Director and was constantly battling people who thought I should incorporate homeless programs with my children’s programs. 

For whatever strange ‘unicorns and rainbows’ reasons, they really believed the two could be combined.  I did not. 

Despite the State telling us we had to get background checks for anyone volunteering for Vacation Bible School, many church members thought it would be “compassionate” to allow homeless people—untested for drugs, criminal history or anything else—to eat a meal with the children under my care. 

I was called ‘uncompassionate’ and many church members stopped talking to me because of my strong stance against combining grown up homeless people with helpless children. 

For this and many other reasons, my solution was I stopped going to that church. 

So flash forward to 2010.  I’m having coffee with one of my favorite people on earth, Tamara Colbert, co-creator of the amazing website and Conservative radio show AmericanWomenMedia.  That day Tamara and I were strategizing the 2010 elections in which her husband, John, was running for Congress. 

As we were talking, I noticed a homeless man slowly starting to approach us.  All those years of anger and resentment at the seemingly able-bodied homeless rushed forward and I forced myself to don my usual mask of indifference, looking away instead of glaring angrily. 

I was relieved when he started to pass us by-- but then Tam did something I wasn’t expecting:  She said hello.

“Hi, what’s your name?” Tamara asked with her beaming, bright smile. 

Both the homeless man and I were caught completely off guard.  What was Tamara Colbert doing here?  She had broken that 4th unseen wall—the wall where you keep ‘them’ away from ‘us’! 

The man said his name was Jim. 

Tamara then shocked us both again when she reached out her hand offering to shake his.

“Well nice to meet you Jim, I’m Tamara,” she said.   

Jim wiped his hand on his pants, saying something about not being clean.  Tamara said she wanted to shake it anyway, and did.

“What’s happening in your life, Jim?” she asked sincerely. 

Jim got teary eyed as he told her he wasn’t used to being asked any questions.  He said people tended to ignore him completely, say something in anger or give him money indifferently. 

He said he was a Viet Nam veteran who had lost his job long ago; he had fallen on hard times and said he wasn’t sure what to do anymore. 

Tamara told him about a job site a couple of blocks away.  She wrote down the address for him, adding ‘tell them Tamara sent you’ and Jim gratefully headed in that direction. 

Without missing a beat, Tamara picked up her coffee and said, “So where were we?” 

I was stunned at the depth and brevity of what had just occurred.  Jim never asked for money and she never offered it but in that one tiny moment, Tamara Colbert brought to life so many of the Sunday school lessons I had been raised with and later taught; all the parables, the ‘Good Samaritan’ story, the “teach a man to fish” quotes--everything all wrapped up into one.  

With Tamara’s act of compassion—the real kind of compassion, not the progressive type that is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer—all those years of anger and resentment I had felt toward the homeless finally left me.

Following her example, I never simply give a homeless person my money; that would be hypocritical and it never really helps them.  I instead do what my beautiful friend Tamara did and, when possible, offer real help or solutions---something that can raise them up instead of keeping them down. 

Thank you, Tamara Colbert--you are the epitome of what true Conservative compassion is all about.