Upset at beggars? Pick the right target

The Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius writes about a woman with a four-year-old son begging on the street in the Financial District. Nearby office workers, led by a sympathetic woman named Anna Samovol, got the woman and her child winter coats and Christmas gifts and eventually paid for them to go live with relatives in Pennsylvania.

Feel-good story? Not anymore. The woman and her kid are back. Samoval said, “I saw her at the BART station. I was pissed off.”
I’ve felt frustrated by beggars too. When I worked downtown I would encounter the same beggars on the same corners literally for years on end. When a familiar face was replaced by another mendicant, only to return a day or two later and reclaim his spot, I joked with co-workers that the unfamiliar guy must have been a temp. On another day, I passed a beggar with an amusing sign, then encountered another beggar a little farther on.

Me: You should have a sign like that guy back there.
Second beggar, unamused: The other day he had a kitten.

But generally I found them not a source of amusement but a pain in the ass. I told myself that they were lazy, that it was their fault they were there, that if it wasn’t their fault then they probably had something wrong with them that couldn’t be helped by my small donation. A story like the one about the woman and her son who were shipped to Pennsylvania only to return to the streets of San Francisco seems to reinforce that idea. If a ticket back home to relatives won’t help, then what good can I do by giving a dollar, or even a hundred dollars?

Finally I realized that all these projections on my part were futile. If I give someone a quarter, or a plane ticket, they don’t owe me anything in return. They don’t owe me improved behavior, or recovery from whatever is oppressing them, or disappearance from my sight. They don’t owe me anything. A gift is just that.

If I want to be pissed off by the fact there are beggars on the streets, there are plenty of good targets for my anger: start with Proposition 13 and the war on drugs, and go from there.

5 Comments so far

  1. fsharp on June 23rd, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I agree that trying to change someone’s behavior through the beggars cup isn’t kindness. It’s not a gift at all.
    The war on drugs and prop 13 aren’t going to really change things.
    There is an endless supply of beggars in our country and and we are an endlessly giving city.

  2. Mark Pritchard (markpritchard) on June 23rd, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    fsharp, that isn’t quite what I was saying. I’m not saying that giving to beggars doesn’t constitute kindness. Clearly it was a kindness for the woman in the Chronicle story to give winter coats to the lady and her son. What I’m saying is that giving to someone doesn’t mean you have a right to control or judge them.

  3. fsharp on June 23rd, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    Giving to beggars is kind, as long as you don’t expect something in return.

  4. sfintern on June 23rd, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Reserving judgment for homeless or people just begging is difficult for me too. I know I can’t give money to everybody who asks me, but just walking by without giving acknowledgment makes it seem like I just don’t care. I worked for a homelessness policy firm last year and would walk to work through the Tenderloin, so I would say to myself that I was working on the "larger problem."

    When I give, I definitely don’t expect anything in return. My hope is that I have given that person an opportunity to do something good, but I know that might not be the case. That’s why I’d rather buy someone some food. Lots of people ask for BART tickets too, which I guess means they commute downtown to beg.

  5. util on June 25th, 2009 @ 3:04 am

    I’ve definitely seen some beggars I recognize commuting via BART, but I guess most of the tickets they collect are destined to be resold at less than face value. If you walk around the Powell station long enough, you’ll surely come across someone hawking tickets.

    Do the givers improve the world by not expecting something in return, by not expecting they’ll put it to good use? Well, I guess they might improve it by not unnecessarily upsetting themselves. But if each gift did carry with it the message "use this to improve yourself", why would that be a bad thing?

    But I think a large part of what is really upsetting the givers is not that the money is not being put to good use but rather that they are being lied to, being manipulated.

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