I’m a friend of beggars. Of course, I know them as Carol, Ewen and Vantha* – and thankfully begging/panhandling is not what defines them−but mostly just something they do to get by.
While living in slums and inner cities over the past few years I've gotten to know lots of struggling friends and neighbors who ask strangers for money. Truthfully, there are no easy answers or guaranteed solutions−just painful lessons! Even so, I've found it helpful to develop a few personal guidelines to inform how I respond in that moment when faced with someone asking for money at a traffic light or street corner. I thought I'd share them with you. So, here are my "Lessons Learned" − 9 tips for responding to that upturned baseball cap: 1. A SLICE OF PIZZA IS BETTER THAN CASH IN SOME PLACES Honestly, I don’t usually give people money in North America. The inner cities are blighted with addiction and I don’t want to contribute to more brokenness and captivity. I spent years working with addicts (who often panhandled), so admittedly my perspective is a little skewed, but my rule of thumb is not to give money to strangers in these places. That said, I don’t just ignore them! I offer to buy them a slice of pizza or help in some other way–a bus ticket (physically bought by me), a can of Coke, a bottle of wine (kidding!). As a big guy living with others, I often felt prompted to invite people home for a meal. Other times just a chat over a cup of coffee is appreciated. I am responsible before God for my own loving response, not their response to me. So, I don’t sweat it if they are only really interested in money.
2. TRAFFIC LIGHTS ARE DIFFERENT TO STREET CORNERS Since I believe that the ideal response is relational, I recognise that someone who stands at a traffic light, with only seconds to interact with each passing car, is not in a space where a genuine conversation can take place. I’ll probably say hi and smile, but there is no real opportunity to engage. In contrast, a street corner or sidewalk offers more opportunity to at least have a chat with someone if time permits. 3. ASIAN CONTEXTS REQUIRE A DIFFERENT RESPONSE This might seem inconsistent, but I do very often give money to people begging in Asia. The places I frequent−Jakarta, Kolkata, Bangkok, Phnom Penh – are filled with folks who are not struggling with addiction so much as chronic poverty. There is no government safety net, perhaps no family back-up and so many are forced to beg. I usually try to ask a little of their story and figure out how they came to be in this situation. Then, very often I find myself helping them out with some cash.
4. GIVE IT UP FOR THE OLD GRANNIES I’m a big sucker for the old man or elderly woman who is forced to beg in a dirty Asian market in the twilight years of their life. I don’t see a whole lot of alternatives. Superannuation? Doesn't exist! Old folks’ homes? Pwah! Retraining? Work? Not so easy for someone over 65, who may have already lived a destitute, war-torn life. At this stage, I’m mainly just thinking, “How can I help Grandma have a better day?” Yes, I know there may be syndicates or crime rings (or just unscrupulous relatives) using Grandad to earn an income. But I usually just err on the side of generosity, unless it’s obvious that something nefarious is going on.
"I am finally learning that I am not God! The best I can do as a finite human being, is to recognize and respond to the humanity of the other person - with kindness and respect."
5. GOTTA SUPPORT THOSE EFFORTS TO WORK I sometimes apply the same thinking to blind or severely disabled folks−though I'm more hopeful about work possibilities for them. Honestly, if I see someone blind walking around playing an instrument badly, or a disabled war veteran selling crappy old flowers or photocopied books, I'm gonna dig deep.
6. DON’T GIVE $ TO KIDS. NOPE. DON'T DO IT. This may sound heartless but I have come to understand that it's not helpful to give money to young children who are begging. Very often, giving money to kids is like paying their families to keep them out of school. So, I avoid adding to the incentive their family has to use the children in this way. Instead, I will buy them some food, talk to them and see if I can engage with their family somehow. I also want to make sure they know where they can get help if they need it, and make sure they are not in any danger.
7. RECOGNISE THAT BEGGING IS A SYMPTOM OF BIGGER ISSUES No-one begs for fun. No-one. Some folks might get used to it, hardened to the dirty looks and immune to the indignity. But over time I’ve come to recognise that panhandling or begging is really just a symptom of much deeper issues. So, however I might respond in that moment, on that street corner, at those traffic lights – I recognise that I am likely NOT addressing those deeper issues of poverty, injustice, addiction or mental illness. I’ve learned to resist the urge to find a solution right there on the spot, because there is no quick solution.
8. ASK: WHAT IS MOST LOVING? Though it's hard and I often fail, I want to commit to asking not what is most convenient, quick or low-cost, but what is most loving? It is true we are not called to judge, but if we are truly seeking the best for a person, we have to make an instantaneous judgment call about whether that money will be used for crack cocaine. I personally don’t think that enabling someone to shoot-up heroin or smoke crack can ever be a loving act. So what is the most loving response I can make towards this person at this moment in time? Perhaps it will be a kind word or shared Big Mac meal. Perhaps the Spirit will inspire something creative in the course of a conversation. 9. ACCEPT THAT OUTSIDE OF RELATIONSHIP, THERE IS LITTLE I CAN DO TO HELP My inner-messiah complex struggles with the reality that I can’t save the world – or even this one person. I am finally learning that I am not God! The best I can do as a finite human being, is to recognise and respond to the humanity of the other person−with kindness and respect. But though we can’t be in relationship with everyone, we can almost always give people the dignity of asking their name (and telling them ours!) and enquiring where they come from.
Craig Greenfield is an outsider who helps insiders become alongsiders. He's the Founder and Director of Alongsiders International. He authored The Urban Halo and Subversive Jesus.