Saturday, July 24, 2004


Professional beggars in the US today create a moral dilemma for Christians (yes, I know the politically-correct term is "homeless person". I'm not politically correct). On the one hand, we are enjoined to help the poor. On the other hand, we are enjoined to love people. Giving money to an addict to help him buy drugs or alcohol is not an act of love, it's an act of "here's an insignificant bit of money, go away and leave me alone".

Most beggars are beggars because they have a drug or alcohol problem that is so severe it prevents them from holding down a job. There are also some mentally ill beggars, but if you give them money, most of it gets stolen by the addicts. So what do we do? How can we help the poor and downtrodden while not aiding and abetting life-destroying activity?

Thanks to government programs to help these people, one possible choice is to just refuse them any help. Presumably, the government will give them enough help to keep them from starving to death. In San Francisco, the government used to not only give them food, it gave them $400 per month to support their habit. The cash payment has ended (at least temporarily, the beggar lobby is very strong in this city), but I can still tell myself that if anyone really needs help, they can get it elsewhere.

This isn't an entirely comfortable solution. In the first place, Jesus didn't command us to vote for government officials who would feed the hungry and clothe the naked, he commanded us to do it ourselves. And in the second place, I don't trust the government to do anything right. The incentives just aren't there. If a beggar freezes to death, what consequence is suffered by the city official who is supposed to prevent that? And what reward does he get for keeping it from happening? Yes, many government people do a good job just from good will. But it is foolish to rely on that.

So I adopted this solution with reservations and with a minor modification I'll discuss below. Before I get to the modification, let me explain a bit about tactics. When I first moved to San Francisco I treated beggars with the same courtesy I would grant anyone else. If they spoke to me I would make eye contact and answer them politely. I soon noticed that the beggars seemed to bother me more than they do other people.

Why? I don't dress in expensive clothes. I'm a big guy. I've been told by several people (quite a few, in fact) that my relaxed, neutral expression looks angry or intimidating (I've had to practice looking pleasant, and it takes an effort). Why would beggars pick on a big, mean-looking guy that doesn't look like he has much money?

It seems to be the eye contact. If you make eye contact, they feel more comfortable talking to you. After several experiences of being followed for half a block by someone begging and pleading, after having to shout "No!" angrily several times to get beggars to leave me alone, I decided that I would have to dispense with basic courtesy.

This decision troubled me quite a bit. Not only do I think it is demeaning and insulting to refuse to make eye contact with someone, I think it is, to some extent, an act of social cowardice. After all, I could instead have decided to continue to offer the initial courtesy of eye contact, and been prepared to more quickly offer the earned discourtesy of an angry rejection.

One angry "no" always gets quick and satisfactory results. Sometimes it is accompanied by a whining complaint about my meanness as they drift off, but I can deal with that. The real problem is that I can't sound angry without getting a little angry, and I don't want to have to spend all my time downtown being angry. Easier to just be rude.

When I decided to go with this new tactic one thing bothered me: how do I distinguish between a professional beggar and a stranger on the street who genuinely needs my help? So my modification was that I decided to try to be aware enough to see the difference between professional beggars and strangers who legitimately need my help.

But the rudeness can become automatic. Once at a 7-eleven, in a suburb where I had never seen a beggar, a woman asked if she could borrow a quarter to make a phone call. I rudely shook my head without making eye contact. As I walked past, I realized that she was clean and well-dressed. I had just insulted someone who politely asked me for a trivial favor. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even go back and give her the quarter.

After that, I promised myself that I would be more cautious. More discriminating.

Today, a man stopped me on the street in downtown San Francisco. I started my usual head-shake, don't make eye contact, but he sounded genuinely distressed: "Mister, mister, can I get you to just listen? Just let me ask you something!" I was one step past him when I remembered the woman at 7-eleven. I stopped. I turned.

The man was dirty and his clothes were old and torn. But I had to listen. He quickly assured me that he wasn't drunk (he was either drunk or had mental problems). He showed me that there were no track marks on his arms and breathed at me so I could smell there was no liquor (like I don't know there are liquors you can't smell).

He told me that he'd been thrown out of the house by his wife after he caught her sleeping with his best friend, and since he worked out of his house he couldn't make a living. He said all he wanted was something to eat. I could take him and buy it for him instead of giving him the cash.

Now this is an old dodge. The idea is that you believe the story, or can tell yourself that you believe it, and since he's an honest guy, you give him five bucks to go get himself something to eat. I asked him why he wasn't at a shelter. He said there was a waiting list and he was going to get in tomorrow, but he was on his own tonight. I didn't believe the story, but I was thinking, what if it's true? I couldn't really know for sure. So I said I'd take him to get something to eat.

This is when he showed me the surgery scar. He claimed that he wasn't allowed to eat meat, greens, or onions for two more weeks. I'd never heard of such a thing. It turns out the only thing he could eat was cheese pizza. And the only pizzeria he knew was six blocks away. Fortunately, I knew of one closer so I didn't have to just give him the money. As we were approaching the pizzeria, he started telling me how he had begged a clerk at a $35/night hotel to just let him get a shower and the clerk told him that he couldn't do it, but he'd let they guy in for only $18.73.

The beggar said he'd give up the pizza if I'd just take him to the hotel and get him a room. He showed me that he had three dollars and said he'd chip that in for the room if I could pay the rest. I figured that even if he was conning me, I would hardly feel bad about getting a guy a room and a shower for one night. It's not like he would have given up any of his booze money to pay for it if I didn't. So I agreed.

That's when it turns out the hotel is ten blocks away. He said we could take the bus. I said, OK, but I'll get you the pizza first. He didn't seem thrilled, but I bought him the pizza and he scarfed it down. The guy really was hungry, but he didn't spend his own three dollars on food.

Next the hotel, right? The guy asks me if it's 7:30 yet. It's only 6. It turns out his good buddy at the cheap hotel doesn't start until 7:30. Hmm. I've never heard of a 7:30 shift before. I can either wait around for an hour and a half or just give him the money and trust him to spend it wisely. I tell him I'll pay the full room price.

Oh, no. That won't do. It turns out that the day clerk won't let him in the room without an ID. No, it has to be his good buddy who doesn't start work for an hour and a half.

This all sounds like an obvious con as I write it, but the way the guy said it was very disarming. He only once suggested that I just give him the money. The rest of the time he was just encouraging me to verify that he spent it wisely. He was, in fact, acting just like an honest down-on-his-luck person might act.

I was in a moral quandary now. First, although I'm not especially concerned about being mugged, it did occur to me that his good buddy the night clerk might be twelve guys who weren't interested in a measly $35. Second, my feet were killing me and I needed to get home.

So, I said I was going to stop a cop and ask him if there was any place they could take him. For just the second time, he suggested I simply give him the money. After a few minutes, he said that if I didn't trust him, if I thought he was conning me, I shouldn't waste my time with him. I said I was just trying to help him out, would he rather be on his own? He said that if I wouldn't trust him, he'd just as soon be on his own. I took my leave.

It used to be that the main problem with charity was that no one really had much excess and it was a real sacrifice to help another person. Now the problem is that you never know whether charity is the right response.

UPDATE: Thanks for the interesting comments.
I've continued my thoughts on this subject here.

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