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Facing an Uncomfortable Reality: Beggars

2010 July 9

You’re walking down the street and you see a man sitting on the ground. He’s holding a sign with a cup out front. A moment of panic hits you. Do you walk past him or stop? Make eye contact or not? Say something or nothing?

Everyone has run into these situations while at home and backpacking (especially in third world places like Southeast Asia and South America). It always makes us slightly uncomfortable as we try to figure out what exactly to do.  Often, the judgement call is tough to make. Seeing someone in that state can depress the hell out of you and we’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire (if you haven’t, go see it) and witnessed what they do with the beggar kids. But on the other hand, you never know what that money is going to be used for or even who it’s ultimately going to.

At the very least, it can be a controversial topic. Having lived in San Francisco and Berkeley, I’ve ran into my share of beggars. And, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that in most situations you shouldn’t give money, at home and on the road. Here’s a couple of reasons/examples why:

1. Where’s the $$$ going? – You never know if the person is going to buy food or drugs or alcohol with the money. A lot of homeless people you find in San Francisco and Berkeley look drugged/drunk out of their minds. Put two and two together and guess where the dollar you just handed over goes? Straight into their booze fund. While it may seem that you are helping the person out, in reality, you’re just further fueling that person’s addiction. Another time, a guy was asking for money near my apartment. I talked to him and turns out, the guy was paying $500/month to rent an apartment. Children are probably the worst. You never know who is pulling the strings in the background and that money you intended for the kid could end up in the hands of an adult working a whole gang of them.

2. They get pissed off – In Phnom Pehn, I saw a mother carrying a baby in one hand and a baseball cap in another. She reaches out her baseball cap motioning for money. I drop in a few riels and start walking away. The thing about homeless people in San Francisco are that they are generally nice. Even if you don’t give them any money, a smile will usually get you a “God bless you!”. Apparently, that’s not the case in Cambodia. The woman looked in the hat, wasn’t satisfied with the amount I had given her and threw the hat down in disgust. Apparently, beggars can be choosers. Needless to say, I was pretty fumed afterwards.

3. One leads to many – If you give one person some money, do you give the next person some as well? What if it’s an entire street full of beggars? Even worse, I’ve given some money to a child, only to see 10 of his buddies rush towards me all trying to grab my wallet. Not only did that put me in an awkward position, if you DO cave in, you could be out a good amount of money. Who wants to end up with a massive sense of guilt, especially if you start out trying to help someone?

4. They lie – I’m not saying they all do, but it’s happened to me before. It sucks when you want to help a guy only to have him stab you in the back. Those of you who have been to the Bay Area are probably familiar with BART. Basically its our version of a subway. One time I was entering a station and saw a man asking for money to buy a ticket. He wanted to get to a specific destination and I happened to have a ticket so I gave it to the guy. As I’m walking down, he comes with me. But when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I see him turn around and head straight back to where he was asking for money. I went back up and called him out. Surprise, surprise, the guy was really trying to get cash.

– – –

Because of these experiences, I’ve been really turned off to giving money to beggars. A good alternative I’ve found is to give food instead. That way you’re directly helping them and they won’t be able to use it for anything but eating. Another option is to give to homeless shelters and other organizations that help them in an organized way.

If this doesn’t convince you, think of it this way. Someone living on the streets needs change (if they want it and are motivated). Change that is big and life altering, probably something that will require a substantial amount of money. If you aren’t giving that person a big lump sum, then it’s likely the quarter or dollar you dropped in will only perpetuate his or her current lifestyle. In the end, are you really helping them or are you just encouraging their current, most likely self-destructive, behavior?

Obviously there are a ton of socio-economic factors at play here and I can’t begin to take into account all of them. Many of the homeless also suffer from mental illnesses which adds another layer of complexion. But I think in general giving cash is not the way to go.

My 2 cents. Thoughts?

6 Responses leave one →
  1. July 9, 2010

    I do not give money to beggars. My brother was in New Orleans one year and instead of giving money, he bought the beggar a meal from McDonald’s (he was sitting close by to the restaurant). When my brother handed the meal to him, the beggar responded by hurling it down the street. He didn’t want food, he wanted money. Get a job!

  2. July 9, 2010

    Yea – I never give money to the poor directly. I’ve purchased fast food gift cards and meals for the homeless a few times and while most of the time I am rejected with “no!” the few times that they accept it’s really rewarding.

    Good times. :)

  3. July 9, 2010

    Oh mean so many times have I had people approach me asking for some change to add to their bart ticket to “get home” or “get to the airport”. It’s bs 90% of the time.

    I had an experience in San Diego where we had catered food brought to us for some students who were having classes there. Well when we had leftovers I would bring them down to the streets in downtown San Diego, which are chock full of homeless. Guess what? They almost never accepted the food. I ended up just leaving it by the trash.

    This sound crazy but a lot of people choose to be homeless. Not because they like it but because they are depressed or on drugs or whatever. The solution isn’t to give them money, most of the time.

    As far as abroad, it’s a different story. The are a lot more straight poor people. but like you said other issues can arise with scams, theft, etc.

  4. July 14, 2010

    I never give out money like J.Volk said-gift cards or McDonald’s money is what I hand out. A friend of mine for a time would hand out fast food applications along with gift cards. :)

    It was really difficult for me shopping in Mexico. They really use the children to tug at your compassionate heart.

    Honestly, one can get a job if one desperately needs one. Beggars shouldn’t be choosers but a majority of them are.

  5. aaro permalink
    July 27, 2010

    in seattle, years ago, a friend and i had just had a great pizza dinner. we had left overs and wrapped them up to take home for later. a block or so from the restaurant we came across a begger. we didn’t have money to give him but instead offered him our leftover pizza. he accepted it with a smile & thanked us. as we walked away, my friend looked over his shoulder and saw the guy sniff the pizza and then chuck it over his shoulder.
    my other rule is i never, ever give to child beggars. this is before the i saw slumdog millionaire and after seeing it, i’m glad i came up with that rule.

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