Economics, USA

The street corner conundrum: To give or not to give?

We all know these people. Many of us see them everyday. They don’t have a particular race, gender, or age, but we all know them when we see them, usually due to the cardboard signs that they hold in their hands.

The messages on the signs vary. Sometimes they’re simple.

Sometimes they’re more situational.

Sometimes they’re honest.

Sometimes they’re philosophical.

Sometimes they’re a just strange.

But regardless of how they’re worded, the vast majority of these messages all say the same thing: I need money.

And I’m torn about whether or not to give it to them.

I used to never give these people money. I always told myself that if I really wanted to help those in need, and if I really wanted to ensure that my money was going towards the cause that I intended, I could make a tally every time I felt compelled to give, and instead donate that money to a legitimate charity or non-profit organization at a later date.

I still think that this idea holds water, but in my experience, it had a few fatal flaws. The first was that it was intellectual argument. It made sense in my head, but it did little to address the sympathetic urges that I felt every time I was confronted with a real person on a real corner. The second fatal flaw was that I never did it. I never kept a tally, and I never donated a penny to address the plight of the people who so frequently tugged at my heartstrings during my daily commutes.

So I opened up the billfold. I don’t want to make myself sound like Fat Joe at a nightclub, but I was dishing out at least a few dollars a week: a buck to the gal off the 11th Avenue Exit, a buck to the revolving door of faces above the Lowry Tunnel…and it felt good. But while self-fulfilling, this “humanitarian” act also came with its own set of ethical considerations that definitely challenge the notion that my actions were unambiguously good.

I would be an asshole if I assumed that everyone I saw begging on the corner was looking for money to buy drugs and alcohol, but I would also be naïve if I did not acknowledge that drugs and alcohol are exactly what some of those people are looking for. If that were ever the case, my money would not be going towards elevating that person out of their dire situation, but instead would be working to further cement their place in it, lending them money to buy the very substances that are keeping them down. That being said, when it comes to that line of reasoning for denying people a dollar, I also share many of the sentiments of the late Greg Giraldo (who, full-disclosure, died of a drug overdose):

There are also perhaps more troubling situations in which my money could have the reverse effect of that which is desired. One specific example is the case of children, particularly those of school age. The presence of children creates a sympathy spike that make many people feel more compelled to give, and some exploitative parents unfortunately know that. Hence, increased dollars to those parents could lead to increased days spent on the streets for their children, rather than being in school where they belong.

There is also the fear that it could be a scam, that many of these beggars are no more than wolves in sheep’s clothing, looking to cheat us out of our hard-earned cash with a manufactured sob story. A quick Google search will confirm that these fears are not completely unfounded, that there are indeed situations where scams of this nature have been uncovered. Still, most of the folks that I personally see begging on street corners don’t seem to pass the eye test for an elaborate con artist. They’re too normal. Too humble. Too real.

And then there’s me, in my car, my new-used 2013 Ford Fiesta, waiting for the light to turn from red to green. Maybe I’m on my way home from work, a well-paying job that blesses me with a life of relative comfort and stability. Maybe I’m on my way to my martial arts gym. The membership fees are steep, but it’s a lifelong dream that I finally have the ability and opportunity to pursue. Maybe it’s Friday or Saturday, and I’m on my way to blow some money spending time with people that I care about. But even if I’m having a shitty day, if I received an ill-timed parking ticket that will put the squeeze on that week’s budget, or if I’m damn near broke on Tuesday afternoon still three days away from Friday’s paycheck, chances are that things are still far better for me than they are for the person standing outside my car.

And to me that’s the biggest point. There’s a chance that the person is a junkie or a scammer, but there’s also a chance that they’re just a fellow human being in need.  I think that most people that stand out begging on street corners don’t want to be there. Some of them are there as a result of bad luck. Many are there as a result of bad choices. Most of them are probably there due to a combination of both. But they all wish that they weren’t.

That’s the reason that I sometimes choose to give. It’s possible that I’m being naïve, that I have a little too much faith in humanity, a little too much faith in the laws of karma and kindness and the truth in paying it forward. But perhaps the fact that I’m in my car and they’re on the corner is a good enough reason in and of itself to give every once in awhile, a good enough reason to roll the dice on a person, to take a buck out of my pocket and release it back out into the world. Because at the end of the day, that world has probably treated me a whole lot nicer than it has treated the person on the other side of my window, and for that I’ve got to owe something to somebody.

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