Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beg Your Pardon?

I've heard the arguments against giving money to beggars.

I've also spent a fair amount of time, in cities all around the world, encountering beggars and contemplating the moral dilemma posed by the massively unequal distribution of the world's wealth.  Frankly, I've never been able to buy into the reasoning against helping beggars.

I must admit though, my rural upbringing may have rendered me somewhat naive on this topic, and I recently had a disconcerting encounter that I may have handled wrong.  Here's what happened:

I was in Washington DC for a meeting and, during a ten-minute pause in a coffee shop, I watched a woman begging outside on a very busy sidewalk.  She was sitting down, had a sign, and looked like she truly needed some help.  As far as I could tell, during the time that I observed, not a single person offered her any change nor acknowledged her existence.  

I knew I was not going to change her life with my spare change, but I thought she might appreciate knowing that at least one other person saw her as a fellow human, in need of a fortunate break.  As I left the coffee shop, I crouched to her level, looked her compassionately in the eye, and warmly wished her "better times ahead" as I dropped my change into her cup.

No sooner had I stood up to cross the street when she began berating me with a loud and angry stream of expletives.  I turned to see her dump the coins to the ground and I realized that she had been insulted by my meager financial offering.  Momentary confusion gave way to embarrassment as a crowd of bystanders turned to view the raucous spectacle.

I have pondered this many times since it happened last spring, and I still can't make sense of it.  I had approached her with the sincerest intentions of respecting her dignity, and I walked away feeling as though she had trampled on mine.

It always comes to mind for me now, each time I encounter a beggar.  I have continued with my past approach of giving generously to some, modestly to others, and walking past most in the course of a typical day. I still think it is usually right to offer help from time to time, but I also wonder if I did something wrong in DC.


  1. Jeff Ryer9/14/2012

    You probably already know the response Boo Hoo would post, so I will give you his alter ego's position on this.

    I walk by several (I will not call them beggars as they are usually harassers) people looking for handouts each day as I exit / enter the subway station each day near Faneuil Hall. Most days it is a male in his late forties usually wearing decent looking shorts, a crisp Nike shirt, Red Sox hat. with shiny new kicks (sneakers). Many times the man is holding a cell phone. These people have the audacity to be asking people for money !!

    I have no idea who is worthy of my dollar bills anymore. Seems like all kinds are out begging. I have made it a loosely followed rule of ignoring all street people. In Boston there are several organizations that reach out and help these people - the Pine Street Inn and the St. Francis House - so I know they can at least get the help they need (or what my $1 bill will get them) Instead I give $ to those organizations.

  2. Auggie9/27/2012

    Ahh grasshopper . . . give a beggar a bed, and he'll repay you with a louse.

  3. Boo Hoo9/29/2012

    Give a street person a few dollars and he'll repay you by urinating in the entrance way to your building (after he drinks a bottle of 2 buck chuck)

  4. Anonymous11/06/2012

    Many beggars and homeless people are mentally ill. They are not seen as a "danger" to themselves or others, do not think, or understand, that they are mentally ill, and in our current system cannot be helped, because they don't think they need or want help. Family members cannot help because the person does not want it, you can't force medication, and privacy laws don't allow doctors or hospitals to tell you anything. It doesn't answer your question, but I have struggled with the same dilemma, and I'm not sure there is anything you can do. Let me know when you solve this problem. JD

  5. Anonymous11/13/2012

    I always keep a few dollar bills in my pocket to give out when i meet beggars on the street. You may ask . . . Why? While the comments above may be true, I give more for me than for them. Whether they thanked me, cursed me, or trick me, I found that giving without expecting anything in return;
    - made me feel good
    - that in every 1 dollar given I will get $10 in return
    - and I produce positive energy in the universe

  6. Money makes man into maniac.