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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