Begging

by Mr. Cheap

This post will upset some readers. I won’t insist that readers promise not to be offended or anything like that, but if you’re not in the mood to read something that may get you worked up, you might want to skip today’s post. If you’re angry and don’t have the time to write a well thought out comment, feel free to cut and paste one of the following (these work equally well for other posts that make you angry on this, or other, blogs):

  • “U R stuppid & cheep MrCheap!!@!”
  • “Well, I guess I can unsubscribe from this trash in my RSS, thanks!”
  • “Nice try, but you’re too [naive / unenlightened / white / uneducated / overeducated / male / affluent / impoverished / rural / urban / straight / unworldly / Canadian] (pick all that apply) to understand the complexity of this issue.”
  • “You, sir, are a heartless brute!”

I’ve had a long, strange history with beggars. In my home town, most homeless were outpatients from the mental hospital, and were as likely to scream something strange at you as to ask for change. My undergrad was in a slightly larger community and you’d occasionally run into beggars asking for change around town. When working down in San Francisco during the dot com boom, I lived on the north side of the Tenderloin and I’d walk across Market St. every day on the way to work (both areas are thick with beggars).

The strangest part is that something about me antagonizes beggars. Most of my friends have noticed that if we’re walking down the street together and we run into a belligerent beggar, without fail he makes a bee-line straight at me. I’ve actually been attacked by beggars 3 times (twice in SF and once in Toronto), so I’m cautious around people who are pan handling.

Historically, and in developing countries, the implied message when someone begs from you is “I’m desperately poor, if you don’t give me some cash for the bare necessities of life there’s a good chance I’ll suffer permanent harm.” I have no problem with this style of begging (although they aren’t likely to get cash from me), and as long as the beggar doesn’t harass or threaten me after I say no or ignore them I’m happy to have a live-and-let-live attitude towards them.

Some people who visit Canada from developing countries have expressed shock to me at the pan handlers they see around Toronto. They can’t figure out why people who are able to walk and have no obvious disabilities would be asking for money. I understand the perspective that a large number of people asking for money on the street have mental health or addiction issues, but once they start crossing the line to harassing and threatening other people it becomes unacceptable to me.

Rather than the traditional mode of begging, many beggars in a Western context take the stance “I’m going to make you uncomfortable and put you in a situation where you’ll pay money to get out of it”. This could be a beggar raising his voice and making a scene (with the expectation you give him some cash to quiet him down), getting uncomfortably close to people or their vehicles (perhaps with a squeegee) and only giving them space when paid for it, or intimidating people who can’t easily escape (I often see mothers with small children being shook down by aggressive pan handlers).

One of my friends has run into a beggar repeatedly who hangs out near the subway station she uses. He’s followed her a few times, and its gotten to the point where she gets pretty freaked out whenever she sees him. I don’t understand why it’s acceptable for him to set up camp at a public transit station and terrorize people.

At this point I feel that rather than begging what’s actually going on is a softer form of mugging. I’m definitely of the opinion that many criminals in the justice system have mental problems, but there are still unacceptable acts that society condemns regardless of the underlying health of the individual. If a shoplifter suffers from a compulsion, or a wife beats her husband because of anger issues, it doesn’t excuse the theft or the assault (although it may moderate the punishment). Similarly, I can’t understand why we tolerate the sort of behaviours that have become so common from beggars.

There are occassionally even larger escalations of violence. I am certainly aware that violence between beggars is more common than violence between them and society at large (and that the violence can go both ways). To me these news reports seem to be extreme examples of standard behaviour, rather than bizarre or isolated incidents.

I have in the past offered food to beggars, but often they’ll take offence at this, and start screaming at me (with the hope that I’ll give them cash to quiet them down I suspect). They’ll indignantly shout “I didn’t ask you for food!” I have no hard feelings at all towards homeless people who don’t beg (if they don’t beg they aren’t beggars). There’s one man who lives around Berkeley that a friend told me about who would tell people off if they tried to give him anything (he’d spend his time going through the trash). Apparently he even gets angry if he thinks people have put things in the trash for him to find. I’m not sure what his world view is, but I respect that he’s living his life in harmony with his values and not causing trouble for other people.

At one point I was debating about doing a PhD in anthropology and focusing on homeless/beggar populations. When I investigated, the consensus among people I talked to was that current academic work on homelessness was done from a sociology / political perspective. There wasn’t much work that viewed homeless societies as distinct societies and approached them from a viewpoint of understand their norms and values, rather than viewing them as a problem to be solved.

One of the few things I like about living in Waterloo instead of Toronto is that I haven’t run into any beggars here (although with RIM’s share price there might be a few in the near future). I understand that people who fight to have beggars left alone by police feel that they’re defending a vulnerable segment of society, but sadly I wonder how many of these champions are living their lives in the suburbs, driving their SUVs and seldom encountering the population that might not be as down-trodden as they believe.

Do you give money to beggars? Do you feel that it helps them? If you accept that throwing money at beggars at a societal level has never solved the problem (and typically draws more beggars to the area where services are being offered) what do you feel would be the best approach to let people live in an urban environment without being molested? Since police crackdowns are typically met with anger and protests, is the only option for people who don’t want to be victimized to move to smaller towns or the suburbs?

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Traciatim

I don’t usually, but I will throw a couple of bucks in a guitar case or similar donation box of someone who is playing music, or performing.

I stopped giving money to beggars when I lived in a larger city than I do now and I sat beside one while eating lunch one day. We got chatting and I flat out asked how much money they pulled in. Turns out it was more than I made . . . Now no longer.

2 Four Pillars

I hate when they are too aggressive which has rarely happened to me.

Sqeegee kids drive me nuts – I just can’t stand them. They come up to your clean car and dirty the windshield and expect a buck or two for that. Meanwhile, of all the ‘beggers’ on the street they are probably the most physically capable of working for a living.

3 Rich

I live in a small town with only a handful of homeless people in it, although I visit Toronto often and normally get asked for cash while waiting for a stop light.

Usually the first couple of people that ask me during a visit will get something, but then the guilt wears off.

After I give someone a couple dollars at a street corner, I often think about how that few dollars could be used to get them back on their feet. I normally have a pretty decent plan before I get to my destination.

It’s a tough call to make. I firmly believe that anyone can be a success regardless of their situation. If you were born relatively healthy, there’s not many excuses I will buy into. However, I’m sure there are some legitimate domino’s of bad luck that fall for some people and lead to homelessness. These are the people who I don’t mind helping. Of course there is no way to know.

4 guinness416

Sure, I’ll give whatever change I may have if the fancy strikes me. There but for the grace of god and all that. However, like the queen and the pope I rarely carry change so it’s not as often as it might be.

These threads always turn into commenters harrumphing out competing anecdotes, let’s see if this one does ….

I assume your friend called the cops or transit police (I’m sure TTC staff are less than useless) about the guy at the subway station?

5 Patrick

I’m in the “put money in the guitar or saxaphone case” camp, but I’m less likely to give money outright. I have bought food for people before, but I rarely give cash. I prefer to give charitable donations to our church or other organizations. The money there is accounted for, whereas cash… who knows where it goes?

6 Passing Through

solution:

An exchange program. Form a charitable organization that takes our beggars to a country where real poverty exists and bring one of those citizens here in exchange. Canada’s poverty is someone else’s dream of a decent life.

So yes, the homeless need to travel and get out more so they can appreciate the opportunities that exist for them here…

7 wolfe222

A few years back a beggar “lived” in the back alleys of the company I used to work for in downtown Montreal. Every so often he would beg for money but I have an “undescriped” motto of not giving money but buying them lunch or giving them food.
This particular guy was very polite, every time I’d go get a lunch and he would be there I’d bring him one. Most of my collegues thought I was nuts & just not helping him.
In any case, during one Christmas period, I think it was on the 23rd or 24th, I went to get a lunch with a collegue & stopped & ate with the beggar. Long story short, I came to know this gentleman quite well who was quite intelligent & just down on his luck.
One day when I passed by his usual spot, he had left a note with my name which said thank you.
I always believe that everyone comes to a point in their life that they need to put a knee down & catch their breath; we also need some good people around us to help us get through these difficult times; I’m just happy I did my part…

8 Mr. Cheap

Guinness: Yes, I think you’re right. Unfortunately these discussions can get so anecdotal (as was my original post) that its hard to take anything from it. Excellent point.

My friend doesn’t report it, which I can understand. When I was attacked in Toronto I ran into a cop about 5 minutes later, and when I reported it he basically laughed at me. I think her view is the same (reporting is pretty much a waste of time).

9 Mr. Cheap

Passing Through: I’ve actually thought something similar could work in the justice system. Whenever a sentence is handed down, the defendant has the option of serving it, or surrendering their citizenship and leaving the country. Developing nations that are interested in acquiring skilled labour (and don’t mind taking in a criminal) can offer to accept them.

Not sure what the long term impact of export criminals would be, but its an interesting thought experiment.

There was an urban legend (among the local population) when I was teaching English in asia that a number of the English teachers were homeless people from Western countries. I don’t think its true, but it was amusing.

10 nobleea

I don’t give money to beggars, as about 90% of the beggars here in Edmonton are just scammers.

The ones who actually need it, don’t usually beg for it.

11 Mr. Cheap

wolfe222: That sounds like a great experience. I’d love to take beggars out for a meal and chat them up but my feeling has been that they wouldn’t be open to it. I should try it since it was a memorable event for you!

I’ve heard that food is often pretty easy to get in most Western cities (once you’re open to digging stuff out of the garbage, its pretty easy to get enough food each day apparently), which may explain why many beggars don’t want food (they’re trying to fulfill other needs).

12 H

I feel that giving them money directly has no real positive effect on society. It may be better to contribute to a charity who can do something to help them change their lives.

Personal experience:
I’ve once been spat on by a beggar in Vancouver because I did not have any change (any cash actually) on me.

13 nobleea

heh, i remember while in san fran one morning, clean shaven vietnam vet asked me for money. I told him the truth – that i had no change. As I left, he mumbled loudly that I could have written him a cheque.

14 jesse

The problem is, like with many charities, you really don’t know for sure your money will be well spent. Will they turn around and spend it on cigarettes and booze or will they use it to feed themselves? I’m all for soup kitchens and homeless shelters as they are generally pretty well run and provide basic necessities with relatively little dark side. I would recommend people go see them in full swing to see if these services are sized too small for the demand (it may be surprising).

My wife was born in Asia and for a long time was distraught by the number of homeless in our city. She does give money to beggars with disabilities or the elderly but there are scammers in Asia too so she has a thick skin.

15 Charles in Vancouver

My late grandfather was always the type to want to help people in need. While I appreciated his good intentions, I believe the best way I can help is to contribute to the service organizations that help to bring people out of poverty, treat mental illness, find housing, provide meals, etc.

My favourite way to donate is to attend community events which benefit worthy charities.

16 Amber Jones

I have occasionally given change to beggers where I used to live in NC. But most of the time I would get them food instead.

However, 6 months ago, I moved to Texas, and where I live now, there is a large number of homeless people that we see on the corners of intersections. My son asked me one day about them, and when we explained why he was there and what he was wanting, he wanted to go home and get some change to give to the man. Such a sweet kid he is. But I am wary about giving money to anyone now because of the amount of money that is said to be earned by them… I mean, I am sure that there are those who “pretend” to be homeless/poor because they see that they can make a quick buck.

17 Dan

Frontline had a program some years ago-“The Beggers Game”. Everyone of them had a substance abuse problem. The basic rule of psychology is not to reinforce inappropriate behavior. There are homeless shelters and soup kitchens in every major city if people are hungry.

18 Thicken My Wallet

I agree with you that when you tell someone outside Western society that physically able people beg they look at you funny or that the family of a mentally unhealthy person is not looking after them and they have to fend for themselves on the street. Is that more a comment on the begger or on us?

In Toronto, the Mayor’s position is that begging falls under some constitutional right (argue seems a litte far-fetched to me when one person’s right to beg begins to interfere with other people’s right to walk down the street peacefully) which tends to enable the more aggressive niches of the population.

19 DividendMan

I don’t give money to them. But I am really curious to know why beggars don’t migrate south to warmer climates… Miami should be the beggar capital of the world.

20 Canadian Dream

Mmm, I find it interesting that most people are actually accepting of Mr. Cheap’s position. I generally have to agree with him. I particularly liked Dan’s statement about reinforce inappropriate behavior. If you give them money they think what they are doing is ok.

I personally don’t have a problem with homeless people. Some are down on their luck which is fine. I just don’t support begging, but if you sing me a tune you are much more likely to get a buck (which is different in my mind – the person is providing entertainment which I then choose to pay for).

Tim

21 DRiPpy Chick

I rarely give change to panhandlers, but like a number of other respondents here, I will toss coins into a busker’s collection vessel. If the panhandler is asking for money, I’m not interested. It’s different if they are asking for food. Been known to order an extra hot chocolate at Tim Horton’s on a cold winter day to give to the fellow who sits on the corner asking for change… he seems happy enough to have something to warm his hands on. One thing I’ve seen more of lately is street folk asking for restaurant doggy bags… as one young woman put it (as I handed her what would have been next day’s lunch of some very spicy South Indian cuisine), she never knows what she’ s going to get, and she likes variety. While many may be hesitant to hand over the coins jingling in their pockets, few will refuse someone a meal… particularly if it is the leftovers that may get forgotten at the back of the fridge for a week or two.

22 Steve in Montreal

While in Boston I was approached by a “beggar”. He asked me for money so I gave him 35 cents in Canadian Tire money. He yelled at me asking what it was. So I told him, “I’m Canadian. That’s our money with the King of Canada on it”. He backed off.

23 Andrea

There is a woman in Toronto that drives me nuts. In the span of a few weeks I saw her no less than 7 times on the Queen streetcar in Toronto, always between Yonge and Sherbourne (she usually snuck on the back doors at Yonge during rush hour when they don’t check everyone’s proof of payment). She always had the exact same speech, word for word:
“Excuse me! I haven’t eaten in 3 long days! Imagine that! 3 long days! Also, I live on the streets” and then she’d go around asking people for change.

After a couple times, she came to me directly and I flat out told her that I didn’t buy her story because it was the same thing over and over. That didn’t stop her from coming up to me a few times after that (always to be told the same thing). One time I actually saw her twice within 2 days of each other. She sat in the seat next to me, did her spiel, and I told her that her math must be wrong because it should be 5 days by now. She then proceeded to basically admit that she’s been lying but that she’s always broke anyway, so could I please give her some change? I told her she should have walked the few blocks and saved her streetcar fare (which I saw her pay) if she was that desperate for cash. Ugh, she drives me nuts!

On the other hand, there is a guy I pass by often on my way to work who I really like. He’s polite, he doesn’t harass people and he’s always extremely grateful to get any food that I offer him, even if it happens to be leftovers that I didn’t eat. Anytime I happen to see him outside of Subway when i got for lunch, I make a point of buying a footlong and giving him half. It does kind of concern me that I haven’t seen him in quite a few weeks, but I’m hoping he just found a nice warm place to hole up for the winter.

24 Shevy

I’m concerned that giving a panhandler money does not solve whatever the root problem is. It doesn’t get someone who is mentally ill any treatment or get someone with a substance problem into detox or provide safe housing for a homeless person or help a teen who has faced physical or sexual abuse, etc.

If we dealt with those root causes how many panhanders would be left?

25 Ray

You can usually tell the hard luck cases, or the truly pathetic ones. I’m also shocked that noone has stated that being a beggar has to be tough. Public humiliation, non-steady income, unpredictable weather, wondering if you’ll eat, wondering where you’ll sleep. If the beggar is really homeless in Vancouver then damn, it’s really rainy and cold here. I don’t pick cotton for $2/day, I can afford to flip him a loonie to do with as he wishes. Money isn’t that hard to make, but if he has to endure all that on the random chance he’ll get a loonie from me, then so be it. Your comments are understandable about the aggressive ones, or the fraud ones that fake homelessness.

26 Mechanonuke

Ok, I agree that being homeless is difficult, especially in Canada during winter. It can also be argued that some legitimately homeless people need help and have the ‘right’ to beg.
BUT…there are also professional panhandlers, that as one post above pointed out, earn a full time income swindling regular folks with a conscience. Two cases stand out in my mind…..one was of a man coming up to me on the subway and asking me to ‘spare a loonie or a toonie’. Come on now! Not even change! At rushhour, just going down the platform at least half a dozen people opened up their wallets.
….OR a couple of years ago, seeing a man who sat in the middle of the road at Younge/Dundas in a wheelchair panhandling cars during the red stoplight; then later seeing him running down the street wheelchair under arm! Scammers indeed.

27 Valerie Crook

I just had this discussion with my teenage son. He’s 2000 miles from home in San Diego for military training. He and his buddies are often approached for money or food, and he almost always gives away his pocket change. His buddies give him a hard time about it since the change may be used to buy drugs or alcohol. My son has a kind heart and I want to encourage him to perform small kindnesses whenever possible. When he asked for my advice, I told him “What you give is between you and God; what they do with it is between them and God”.

28 Slinky

I always say give a hand up, not a hand out. The guy that offers to put a cart back at Aldi’s in return for the quarter gets the quarter. The guy with the sob story gets nothing. Other than that, I prefer to give to charities who also subscribe to the hand up philosophy.

29 Mr. Cheap

Valerie: I definitely understand your perspective on the matter. As “The Butterfly” from Zorba the Greek (http://www.bilkent.edu.tr/~berument/personal/zorba.htm half way down the page) makes the point, sometimes we can do harm by trying to help. I’m not entirely convinced you can divorce the two (your son’s friends are challenging him about the consequences of his actions: is it still moral if he recognizes his actions may be harming the person he’s trying to help?).

I think if we decide we want to help someone, we also accept an obligation to try to make sure we don’t harm them in the process (with physicians this is codified as an oath to “do no harm”). In many cases I think the world would be a better place if people focused more on not harming each other and less on “helping” each other.

30 Kemo

@wolfe222
It is great that you get to pick when to interact and open your heart and feel happy about it, but what about if the beggar loiters all day long begging sitting in your apartment building’s door? When you do not get to pick when to interact but the person engages you every time you pass by? What if he is a strong adult male and you are a petite woman?
It can get complex, and such intense interaction can be tiring.

31 Tai

Well, I won’t be giving money to beggars anymore.

(Friends and I walking along Spadina. Female beggar come up to us.)
Beggar: “I just need a few cents or dollars etc. (stressing how much she needs it)”
Me: “What is it for?”
Beggar: “To buy a bagel at Tim Hortons right down the street. It costs $2.40. I’m asking for small amounts from various people ’cause I can’t just ask all at once.”
(Okay, so friend hands over a few cents. I get my coin purse to pitch in $1.50)
Beggar: Oh! I just need one more $1 so if you have any to spare!
(Fine, gives her $1)
Beggar: “Thank you! You guys are such good people!”
(We walk down the street a bit and there she is still begging for more money from other people for the SAME REASON)

Scam artists. Taking advantage of people’s generosity.

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