The Thinking 

The Entitled Beggar

November 16, 2010



I have experienced in just the past month a new kind of begging that I have never seen before. I live in a city where encountering beggars is a routine experience. Typically a bedraggled man will approach and ask for some money, very timid, very humble; if you just walk on by he shows no persistence, if you give him a dollar he will thank you profusely and praise you for how generous you are. This ritual repeats itself endlessly, becoming a part of big city life. 

In the past month, however, I have twice been approached by women looking traumatized and frightened. Each said she was fleeing an abusive husband or escaping from some serious family trauma.In both cases, the woman was traveling in a car, a rather large minivan that actually looked pretty new and shiny. Each woman explained that she was leaving an abusive husband and then pleaded that she needs help, she needs food, she has no money. Each explained how this was an emergency and when she gets settled again she will send the money back to me. Both women said this to me, that she would send the money back, that she would invite me to a dinner to thank me for my generosity. To bolster their stories, each showed me that her kids were with her. Sure enough, each woman had two children in the car with them. Oddly enough, the second woman who approached me in this way was with a man, apparently not the husband she claimed to be fleeing.

The first woman was a moderately overweight Hispanic woman; I’d guess she was in her late 30s. She was not accompanied by a man. Interestingly, with her, her eldest daughter, about 15, joined in with the begging spontaneously to help her mother out when I was showing resistance. The second woman was white, mildly overweight, and about 25 years old. She was accompanied by a man also white about the same age as her. The man mostly kept in the background. The children weren’t directly involved at all except by their presence that the mother pointed out to me.

Since the women presented their stories to me in a convincing way, I did offer them money in the first instance and food in the second instance. The beggars I normally encounter show lavish gratitude for being given small amounts of money. These women responded with hostility and even rage. They were very aggressive in trying to get me to give them more than what I first offered and they acted very offended that I tried to limit the amount I gave them instead of giving into their escalating demands. In both instances, after giving these women support, the ending mood was hostility towards me because I degraded them or was being too stingy.

                                                                        — Comments —

Lawrence Auster writes:

One should not give money to beggars, period. 

The Indian spiritual master Meher Baba once said that when you give money to a beggar, you take on his sanskaras (impressions). I think there is truth in this. Beggars are engaged in a fundamentally immoral activity. When you buy into their act and give them money, you are joining them in that immorality. 

Your commenter sounds very naive, to believe that the women who said they were fleeing their husbands were telling the truth. Beggars are endlessly inventive in the stories they come up with.

Laura writes:

I agree one should never give to beggars. To do so only encourages more people to go into the life of begging. Beggars beg because people give.

One should regularly give to the poor through trustworthy groups or directly to people one actually knows.

James H. writes:

I generally refrain from giving to beggars for reasons alluded to in the post as well as others. But while in Rome with my family a couple of years ago we passed an emaciated obviously crippled and shriveled woman literally laying in the gutter. She looked as though she couldn’t weigh more than 80 lbs. and seemed to be missing some limbs and those which she still possessed were withered and useless. It was the most pathetic sight I’ve ever seen. My only thought was, “There but for the grace of God.” 

I removed 10 Euros from my pocket and placed it in her alms jar. Our guide nearly had a heart attack and shrieked, “Stop!” He grabbed me and dragged me away explaining that I’d just been snookered by a clever con artist. He steered me and my family to a nearby building and had us wait hidden from the woman just around the corner. In no time, this shriveled crippled woman shed her beggars outfit, got up and literally waltzed away with nary a care in the world. 

If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I would have thought the transformation impossible. I could barely believe my own eyes. Our guide, a stately elderly gentleman, explained it was a huge mistake to give to beggars because it only encouraged their conduct and increased their numbers. He said that gypsies have been engaging in this sort of shake down for centuries and to exercise extreme caution and care.

N.W.  writes:

Having done quite a bit of busking in the U.S. and Europe, I’ve ran into my share of beggars and street urchins. Finding a good busking spot is a tricky business, often the best pitch also happens to be a good spot for begging. While busking in Trastevere one day I was informed by a rather bedraggled traveler that I had taken his place. I had seen the man about begging before, so I simply told him “non loso italiano”  and went on playing. A bit later I saw the man across the piazza animatedly talking to a couple of tough-looking punks while gesticulating wildly in my direction. When the man saw me looking at them, he stopped and gave me a friendly wave. His two companions merely scowled. I decided that discretion was the better part of courage, said “Ah si, loso, loso,” and strategically withdrew. His two leather-clad associates both had enough tattoos and piercings to qualify them for any halfway respectable freak show, and the pit-bull-like muts they kept by them were none to friendly. (You will often see travelers and beggars in possession of a nasty mut. The acrimonious beast is present to complicate matters if the local constabulary takes a mind to start enforcing any laws; most officers would rather leave well enough alone.)

Around about the Coliseum and the Pantheon one is likely to encounter a dark-haired fortyish women who will boldly walk up to you and say, “Oh thank God, finally another American! I’ve been walking around for hours looking for help, I don’t know what to do.” Now, I appreciate a good story now and again and she had a fair one. In very good english she continued her tale of coming to Italy to learn Italian and how some thief stole her purse with all her money and she just needs enough to get back to her hotel. So, amused, I gave her a euro. “But what am I to do?! The place where I am staying is an hour outside the city and the bus costs forty euro!” Sorry, honey, thats all I got. “But what am I to do?” I guess you’ll just have to meet thirty nine more people like me. Good english by the way.

The same lady accosted a number of students in my class at various different times. Our theology professor, Monseigneur O’Brien, a short little man from County Cork, had an elegant solution he employed. When the same lady came up to him he looked at her quizzically for a moment and said, “Haven’t I met you before?” She hurriedly left.

One of the most pitiful sights I saw was outside of St. Peter’s in an underground thoroughfare beneath a major street. Kneeling face down on the ground was a gypsy woman and her young son with a cup and a small electronic keyboard in front of them. As I walked by the young boy reached out and pressed a button on the keyboard and it started playing an electronic rendition of “Ode to Joy.” As the melody came to an end the little boy looked up at me with the most pitiful expression on his face, held out the cup and said, ” Per favore, Signor.”  It was all I could do to keep from cracking up laughing.    

Jesse Powell writes:

In regards to the issue of my naïveté, I do not feel bad or foolish about believing in the story of the first woman. The reason why the story of the first woman was so convincing to me was precisely because she was not at all like the usual beggar. She seemed very excited and upset, she told me a story that was at least possibly true, she had “evidence” that she was fleeing her husband with her kids in that the kids were with her and she showed me that she was out of gas in her minivan. It all seemed to fit and seemed plausible to me. Importantly, her story was “original”, the first time I had heard a story of need like this, making the scenario more believable to me and not made up.

The second time around I knew immediately the story was fabricated after the first sentence out of the second woman’s mouth because I could tell the similarity between this woman and the other woman I encountered a month earlier. You might ask, then why did I offer to buy the second woman some food? The reasons for this are a bit complicated. I guess, my thinking was that there might be some kind of real need or distress going on that I could alleviate, that food is less prone to abuse than money, and that it didn’t seem right to treat the second woman in a radically different way than I treated the first woman. I have steeled myself, after thinking about it, that I will not give any support to the third and following women who approach me in a similar way. 

On the more general issue of giving to beggars I wish to offer a contrary note. The great majority of the time I do not give to beggars, their story or situation needs to impress me as being “unusually deserving”. Of course, I am going by impressions and “gut feelings” and so I can be fooled. However, to impose a blanket rule of never giving to beggars no matter what under any circumstances is not a position I agree with. I see begging as a part of the social safety net, that the ability to beg does serve a useful social purpose. People may indeed find themselves in unusual emergencies where a small amount of money provides a great good and people in more chronic need may need help that organized institutions cannot or will not provide. 

Homelessness got started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a consequence in my view of the family breakdown that was becoming more serious and entrenched by that point in time. Since then homelessness has greatly grown. The problem of homelessness and extreme poverty will not be solved by refusing to give to beggars. The source of poverty and disability is not private and governmental welfare. Yes, there are negative unintended consequences to giving to beggars but that does not mean that giving to beggars is bad.

Laura writes:

Modern “homelessness” began with the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. The overwhelming majority of those who live on the streets are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The point wasn’t that refusing to give to beggars will solve poverty. There are no solutions to poverty but there are ways to lessen it. Drug addicts will live on the street if they can support themselves. 

I agree that there may be rare cases when someone seems to be in an emergency.

 Again, giving to the poor is a duty, but there are better ways to do it. I hate not giving to beggars. Most of us instinctively want to help someone who is in need. But our instinctive reaction is not necessarily the best one.



Share:Email this to someoneShare on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest0Share on Google+0