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.