In Krutch Park on Christmas day I met Edna, originally from the Bronx. She says she is “retired” and “I pick up my checks at the Social Security office and cash them at the grocery store.” She said she wasn’t hungry, but “I haven’t had a hot meal all day and that’s not good.” She was hoping a couple of guys from Kentucky who had given her a ride the day before would show up again and take her, along with her considerable baggage, to the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission for their 5:15 PM meal.

She said she isn’t homeless, a claim which seemed to rest on the evidence that she sometimes “gets a hotel room.” She lamented the expense of doing so, saying, “hotels in west Knoxville charge $70 a night and somebody told me the Crowne Plaza charges $90 or more.” She speculated about the people living in the Holston Building adjacent to where she sat. She’d heard some paid “nine-hundred or a thousand dollars a month rent for just one or two bedrooms.” She seemed to think that was absurd.

She told me she sometimes sleeps in the First Tennessee Plaza where there are a couple of benches and shelter from the wind. She wished she was in Florida, but was glad she wasn’t in New York City. All she really needed, she told me, was a taxi to take her and her belongings to KARM for that meal. She had their number and I called her a taxi. She said she had the money, but I gave her the couple of crumpled dollars in my pocket.

I know we aren’t supposed to give money to panhandlers, but she never asked for anything but a ride. I also know that I had a nice Christmas, probably spending more money on gifts than she gets in months of social security checks. I have a home, hot food when I want it and I’m safe when I lie down at night. She’s probably cold tonight and she’s never certain that she’s safe.

I know the problem of homelessness is complex far beyond my understanding. Still, it is hard for me to reconcile that the wealthiest nation in history which claims to follow a religion based on helping the least among us can’t do a better job than what we are doing to help these fellow citizens. I’m not sure we really care as a society.