How to Treat Beggars
You know the scenario: You see a dingy old man with a gray-yellow beard in tattered and dirty clothes standing on the corner and you cross the street to avoid the possibility that you’ll have to deal with him. Just then you’re confronted by another similarly shabby person who asks if you have some change to spare. Your fingers play with the quarters in your pocket and you wonder if you should keep walking or if you should drop them in the fast food cup in outstretched arms. What should you do?
It’s a question I have wondered many times. A lot of people have some pretty set responses to the question, either one way or the other. But for most people it’s probably not that simple. They question their choice each time they are presented with it. Here is what I try to keep in mind when I face that dilemma.
1. Above all, remember that they are humans. The Dali Lama is fond of saying that all humans are searching for the same things: happiness and an end to pain. Recognize that they are the same as you in this way, even if they choose to go about it in a different way. This is something that you should try to internalize. You may not want to walk a mile in their shoes, but understand that they probably don’t want to either. Many times they see begging as the best of a number of bad alternatives. Making them feel like outcasts is the surest way to guarantee that they’ll stay that way.
2. Treat them kindly, within reason. Most of them are not bad people and don’t deserve to be treated poorly. Hey, maybe some of them are just bored and are begging to pass the time before going to do something. Show them that you recognize them by at least looking at them and addressing them. Just give them a smile, politely decline, and keep on going. Odds are they’re not going to harass you. But use your own judgment here; if you’re get a vibe like they might be dangerous, do whatever you think is best.
3. Remember to respect their culture. Not all beggars are here in the US. When you’re traveling abroad, remember that in some cultures begging is a way of life for some. In the far east, for example, beggars are commonplace and are not treated quite as badly as here in the western world. Eastern religions teach compassion for all mankind and helping your fellow man when you can. Come to think of it, I can think of another religion that teaches the same thing, but that’s for a different post.
4. Beggars in different cities have different personalities. It’s not as strange as it sounds. Remember that people are at least partially a product of their environment and that behaviors are rewarded selectively. In other words, what works in one city doesn’t in another so the beggars are likely to behave differently. In the midwest they tend to be polite and friendly. In the south they tend to plead and play on your compassion. Other places, beggars will likely act differently.
5. If you’re going to give something, do it wisely. When you give to a beggar, you are rewarding whatever internal and external behavior he is performing and has performed recently. So if he’s doing Charlie Chaplin impressions of the Little Tramp and gets his desired outcome, he’s more likely to move onto Buster Keaton. Likewise, if he’s just stumbled out of the alley after finishing off a bottle of MD 20/20, he’s more likely to go buy another.
6. Money is not the only thing you have to give. Sometimes the beggars aren’t looking for money. Sometimes they’re ultimately looking for a bite to eat or some way to pass the time. Though most will take money in lieu of whatever they really want, give some consideration to the idea that maybe you could give them something that you want them to have. Maybe something like the leftovers from your meal that somebody else might enjoy having.
These are the things that always run through my head when I see someone on the street begging. I won’t say that I always do the right thing or that I always even follow my own advice. But I do try to consider more than just my own convenience, comfort, and sense of smell.
One thing I’d like to do but haven’t yet is to find a guy who’s asking for food and buy him lunch and talk with him. I’m sure I could learn something or at least just spend a few minutes doing something different. But then I do spend an inordinate amount of time walking through downtown areas just Meandering along. Maybe I feel a little bit of a kinship.