The Scrooge Impulse

Last night Kish and I were downtown walking to dinner when we saw a man and three kids who looked to be about 10 approaching.  It was pretty clear he was going to ask us for money, and sure enough he did — mumbling something about needing cash for a hotel room, a variation on the old panhandling line about being a stranger in town who has been unexpectedly stranded and needing help.

I declined.  Sometimes I give money to street people as an act of simple charity, but something about this enconter struck the wrong chord.  Kish, however, went to her purse, fished out a ten-dollar bill, and gave it to the man.  She noticed that the kids weren’t wearing hats or gloves on a chilly evening, whereas I was focused on the man, and I felt like Scrooge.

We then walked a few steps to the restaurant, and one of the young valet parkers came up to us.  “Just so you know, that guy comes by here every night,” he said.  “It really bugs me how he uses those kids as props for his begging.  Maybe it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.”  And then Kish and I went inside and thought and talked about the encounter.

So the man asking for money wasn’t quite Bob Cratchit, and perhaps I wasn’t quite Scrooge.  Or maybe I was, anyway.  The ethics of panhandling and panhandling responses are complicated.  Most homeless groups say you shouldn’t give money directly to beggars, who likely will use it to feed the bad habits that helped to make them homeless in the first place.  If you want to help the homeless, they say, give to organizations that help them end their addictions and destructive tendencies.  But what do you do when confronted by kids without hats and gloves?  The guy may have been running a scam, but I’m not feeling very satisfied about my reaction.

Giving $21 To A Homeless Man

Washington, D.C. seems to have a disproportionately large number of homeless people, and they are a very visible part of the community.

When Kish and I lived here in the early ’80s, a “deinstitutionalization” program had just gone into effect, and many apparently disturbed people who had been let out of the local asylum were living rough on the streets. They tended to cluster in doorways or on the steam grates above the D.C. subway lines. Many of them were scary — tormented by inner demons, raving angrily to themselves, and occasionally lashing out at passersby. D.C. residents looked for them and gave them wide berth; tourist families often didn’t.

Last night I walked to dinner in downtown D.C., and the homeless people are still here, tucked into their preferred cubbyholes and campsites, carrying their pieces of cardboard and their threadbare blankets. On the way back one African-American man played the angry black man card to get our attention, saying something like “Hey, get out of my way.” When we stopped, startled, he laughed and apologized, then told his story in rapid-fire fashion.

Homeless people often talk very fast, because they know from experience that people typically won’t spend much time with them. This time, though, we listened, and his story went like this. “I’m not begging,” he said. “I recently got out of prison and I have no where to go. I spent what money I had to buy shoe shine materials. I need exactly $21 to pay for a room tonight, or I will have to sleep outside. Can I shine your shoes?”

The man was coherent and made eye contact, and I believed his story. It was too cold for an outdoor shoe shine, though — and, I realized, therefore also too cold for a fellow human being to sleep outside. So I gave him the $21 he wanted, and my friend made a contribution, too. The man took the money and said thank you, and we walked away.

Thinking about that brief encounter this morning, I don’t regret giving the man the $21. He may have been a masterful con artist, and I recognize that many homeless advocates say you should not give money to the homeless because they will just use it to feed alcohol or drug habits. In this case, though, my instincts said the man was genuine, and I felt that I could help him.

In the cold light of morning, I don’t regret giving this man $21, and I hope that he used it to get that warm room on a cold night.

Begging Door-To-Door

Last Sunday Kish and I were getting ready to take the dogs for a walk when there was a knock at the door.  We opened our front door to find a teenage girl and her mother, both unknown to us, on the doorstep.

The girl explained that they were members of a nearby church.  She said she was collecting money so she could go to a church camp this summer, which was her “dream.”  She said she would be participating in a 5K walk, held up a generic sign-in sheet, and asked if we would sponsor her.  We gave her $5.  All the time, her mother stood there, beaming.

This incident left a sour taste in my mouth.  The girl and her mother didn’t look impoverished; they appeared to be average, well-fed, middle-class Americans.  They weren’t trying to raise money for a charity or a school or group activity.  Instead, they were just going door-to-door, asking complete strangers for a hand-out so the girl could go to camp in a few months.

This used to be called “begging.”  The 5K and the sign-up sheet were just a fig leaf for a naked appeal for cash.

Perhaps I’m just not a very charitable person.  Perhaps I should focus on the fact that we and our neighbors gave hard-earned money to these strangers to help them out.  Perhaps the girl will now go through life believing that Americans are decent, generous people who lend a hand when you are in need.

However, I wonder, instead, whether we have really come to the point where parents not only allow their kids to solicit donations for personal items door-to-door, but also participate in the process?  Could this girl not get a job to pay for her dream, or hold a garage sale, or save for a few months to cover the cost of the camp?  Couldn’t the family make a few sacrifices to pay her way?

This young girl probably collected more money from our neighborhood than she would from 10 hours of work at a minimum wage job.  What kind of message is she getting?