Every city has it’s share of beggars, panhandlers. A few weeks ago, I was in Chicago with a bunch of friends. Walking down Michigan avenue, we passed at least six people on the sidewalk, all with different signs asking for money. I handed one of them a dollar bill, and this sparked a long and lively conversation about how useful (or not) it is to give them money.
Almost everyone I know of looks at the practice of handing over spare change with disapproval. “You only encourage them to beg on the street”, “You enable their laziness”, “Look at him! Can’t he find an honest job at a construction site or a McD?” “He’s going to buy cigarettes/alcohol with our hard-earned money” “You’re a sucker for this” are a sample of the kind of things I have heard.
A very large number of people think this: If every person gave a little change away, it adds up to 20-30 dollars per day per beggar. They comfortably feed themselves with this and spend the night at a homeless shelter, or outside Walmart. They know they don’t have to look for work, as this money will take care of all their needs. The first time I heard this, I was horrified. So many of us truly believe that a handful of dollars and a sidewalk to sleep on is all one needs for a fulfilled life for these people. (Don’t get me started on what makes a fulfilled life for the rest of us) What about a home? family? health? do they have children? But people have already tuned out by the time I ask. I am aware of the economics of charity, how welfare and subsidies do not always have the outcome desired. About how they do sometimes facilitate the need for further welfare, and do not end the problem per se. But what about the lives they save?
I am bothered by the above simplistic explanation I always get, on so many levels. Does the spare change you throw away really matter so much in the life of a homeless stranger? Just how significant do you really think it is? It is spare change. Does handing over what you can dismiss without a thought, something you will not miss, give you any right to judge how your precious 50 cents will be spent? So if he buys a single cigarette with it, you will huff in disapproval. What if he buys a soda? Will you moral-police him then as well, preaching about a good wholesome diet? What gives you the right to disparage a man, bemoaning his laziness, when you’ve known him for all of a few seconds as you walk your busy walk, live your full life? Oh, and the worst is when I’ve been told to observe and note the sincerity and effusiveness of gratitude I receive when I give money. If this gratitude is even a little muted, even a touch less sincere than what your fifty cents demands, the complaints begin anew. I wish people stop being so full of themselves, expecting nothing less than a prostrated man weeping with joy at the pittance he receives. I wish people got over themselves just a little bit.
This is not to say I walk around with a bleeding heart, emptying my wallet whenever I see a person in need. But I give when I can, which is not always. But, I never to judge them for asking. It’s the moralizing that comes before and after that enrages me.
Then there are the panhandlers. A lot of them are con artists. Once, the H and I were at an intersection and we were approached by a man who “needed twenty dollars for gas money as he and his wife were driving to their home in Michigan, and he was broke”. We didn’t have the money, neither did his story seem like the truth. He went on his way. Since that day, I’ve seen this man at least twice afterward. He wears the same clothes, has the same bag slung on his shoulders, and is clearly not heading home to Michigan like he said. He might even approach us again with a different tale, not recognizing us. I know this. And I know of people who have given money away, believing someone was a cripple, only to have him dash off with fully functional legs the moment the money changes hands (true story. On a train in India).
I do not know enough about the economics of charity, or the trickle-down effects that handing over money creates. Neither do I think that this is a problem that can be resolved by the generosity of a few ordinary people, every day on the streets. But when you see someone, visibly hungry, visibly suffering, how can you walk away?