Walking along Ninth Street in Durham, or Queen Street in Toronto, or anywhere, we’ve been approached by vagrants, panhandlers, the lot. They’ve even knocked on my door and asked for money to help them pay their rent.
I’m conflicted. I know I’m a soft touch, and my heart goes out to people who, through bad luck or bad choices, ended up in a place they never expected. There but for the grace of God, etc. Yet, I know I’ve been taken advantage of more than once by people exploiting my generosity and it galls me.
Searching the web yields a few approaches. At Christmastime, Jeanette Winterson puts a few fivers in her pocket and has them at the ready:
I also have the £5 principle in the month of December. If anyone on the street asks me for money - they get one of the endless fivers stuffed about my person. We are told not to give to beggars - stupid advice - we should always give if someone asks us. Street donations don’t solve the problem - we need to support homeless charities - but I think it is wrong to walk past a person who has nothing. We could all be that person.
So give what you can, according to your means, however small.
A typically strong Winterson opinion, unequivocal. I like it.
On Ninth Street, the merchants advise not to give money to individuals and instead to make a donation to the Durham Rescue Mission or other similar organization. The Regulator Bookshop, in its online email newsletter, recently offered a write-in contest for “true stories of especially considerate or especially rude behavior that they had encountered, sparked by the publication of Lynne Truss’s new book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter, Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door."
The runner-up was this piece, by Bobbie Collins-Perry (and the prompt for this blog posting):
After dark. A man approaches me in a parking lot. He asks me for a dollar for the city bus. Normally, I don’t give money to strangers, remembering the counsel I’ve been given that panhandlers will just spend the money on drugs or alcohol and the cautions about opening myself up to crime. I call out, “I’m not sure I have any change.” “You’re going to see if you have the change?” He approaches closer. I’ve got myself in it now, and I’m feeling uncomfortable and pressured. I begin to run through scenarios and questions. Is he homeless? Or is he just having a bad day? Well, he doesn’t look like a typical street person, and I’m close enough to the side door of the restaurant to feel more secure. I fish for my wallet and come up with a dollar bill-this will at least get me out of the situation. I hand it to him. He thanks me and says I’m very kind. I hurry my hands to get the wallet back in my purse and turn towards the entrance.
“Wow, pretty too. You married?” An affront has transformed into an intrusion, and I have allowed this rudeness by not being indifferent to him. “Very,” I replied and beat a hasty retreat. I berate myself–he was just a freeloader. And he thinks I’m willing to give him much more than money. I know better, and vow to never let a vagrant take advantage of me again. Yet, I’m still conflicted-feeling disrespected, but still wondering how I can help.
Okay, give to a homeless shelter. I’ve done this before, but it’s in the past; it doesn’t help alleviate the feelings of immediacy each time I’m approached on the street. Ruminating while I drive, knowing full well I have a dollar to spare and a vehicle to transport me home, I come up with a solution: “I’ll start a jar-each time I am panhandled, I’ll politely say “no,” and put money in it.” I’ll feel good about not supporting substance abuse, not being violated, and being able to respond right away. I should be able to make a healthy contribution and help people who want to be helped on my terms in the light of day.
Another good, sensible tack.
What are the economics of begging? Robert Klein has a funny routine on one of his albums about a panhandler whose heart-rending screams of PLEEEEASE!!! in downtown Manhattan bring in contributions. Klein follows the beggar at the end of the day to a side street, where the beggar puts his stuff into the trunk of a shiny Cadillac. Klein said he yelled to the guy, “Hey, PLEASE!” And there’s a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” about a middle-class man who finds begging more lucrative than being a reporter (I can verify that fact).
Marginal Revolution, a libertarian economics blog that more than occasionally drives me up the wall and across the ceiling, usually provides intellectual cud for me to chew on or spit out. In this post, Tyler Cowen directly confronts the economic situation of all the beggars he sees in Calcutta. Using his typically cool-blooded economic reasoning, he concludes that giving to beggars who ask for money encourages more beggars to enter the market, thus increasing the number of beggars and more aggressive behavior from the beggars because their actions are rewarded with money. Better, he says, to give money to the poor person who is not begging and so is expecting it least.
In the comments to Cowen’s posting was this reference to a Tom Stoppard quote from his play “Indian Ink.” Stoppard blends economics with self-satisfaction:
Dilip: You have to understand that begging is a profession. Like dentistry. Like shining shoes. It’s a service. Every so often, you need to get a tooth filled, or your shoes shined, or to give alms. So when a beggar presents himself to you, you have to ask yourself– do I need a beggar today? If you do, give him alms. If you don’t, don’t."
So, where does this leave me? I already make regular donations to the Durham Rescue Mission. If, on a particular day, I’m feeling generous, I’ll make sure I have some singles folded up in my pocket. How much harm can a person do with $1? But I won’t give anything to the beggar who gets in my face.