Sunday, October 31, 2010


I received this email from R in response to some comments I made about those who hang around in parking lots in well-to-do neighborhoods and say they're run out of gas.

Thanks for your thoughtful questions about panhandling. I've wondered the same about our obligations. In general, when one parts with a gift, one should completely part with it (and not nag the recipient about how it's being used). I think we view our gifts to panhandlers differently, more like an investment - we don't personally reap the return, but we expect that the recipient will reap a certain kind of return (food, drink) and not something we deem frivolous (beer, smokes). This is especially true in cases where the money is solicited for a particular need, like gas to get home. If we learn the money's NOT used for gas, we have a right to be upset. If we give in response to a general request (like a guy at a traffic light), I think we have to be even more aware that we can't follow our money. We're trusting the recipient to do what he or she needs with it and to define that need.

What I've decided is to offer food to folks on the street corner, on the theory that without fuel, the brain can't make any other good decisions. I know this is true for me, so I assume it's true for others. Sometimes it gets turned down, which is fine. I appreciate the honesty. And I have tampons for the women.

"Can you spare some change" has morphed into "I live on 40th street and need some money for gas to get home." Yes, I think it is the dishonesty that gets us, though we know, or should know, that the subtext is the same.

I had concerns about the health care bill because it assumes that we know what someone else needs. The same with food stamps. Perhaps someone needs rent money more than health insurance. They might be very healthy, but living on the street. Health insurance might be the modern equivalent of "let them eat cake."

Once, in Chicago, someone asked me for some money for food. It was infront of a fast food restaurant, and I offered to buy him a hamburger. He said, "get loss." Recently I offered a very intelligent but homeless man a loaf of white bread. "No," he said, "I only eat high quality carbs." The Buddha supposedly died of bad pork that someone gave him. Did he know it was bad? Yes, but ate it so as to not insult the giver. Monks beg, supposedly, to give people an opportunity to give.


Anonymous said...

In Chicago, I used to buy the street wise guy a coffee and he always said thanks.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the Buddha know that pork isn't Kosher? H.

Carole Goodwin said...

I wrestle with this,too. Generally I agree that if I give money, it is a free will gift without strings. But I resent being scammed. I am more likely to give money to someone who just asks for it than to people with a suspicious story. Still some of the scams have evolved into street theater, even with props and costumes. I think of the woman carrying a white nurse's uniform in a dry cleaners bag, who wanted money to get to work. But one time I was leaving a restaurant carrying a "doggie bag" and a woman approached me and asked for my leftovers. That affected me.

Joshua, 1980