The street-corner conundrum: To give or not to give?

We all know these people. Many of us see them everyday. They have no particular race, gender or age, but we know them when we see them, usually because of the cardboard signs they hold in their hands.

The messages on the signs vary. Sometimes simple. Sometimes situational. Sometimes honest. Sometimes philosophical. Sometimes just strange. But most of these messages say the same thing: I need money.

And I’m torn about whether to give it to them.

I used to never give these people money. I told myself that if I really wanted to help those in need, and if I really wanted to ensure that my money was going toward the causes I intended, I could make a tally every time I felt moved to give and instead donate that money to a legitimate charity or nonprofit later.

I still think this idea holds water, but in my experience it had a few flaws. The first was that it was intellectual. It made sense in my head, but didn’t ease the sympathetic urges I felt every time I was confronted with a real person on a real street corner.

Also, I never did it. I never kept a tally, never donated a penny to address the plight of the people who so frequently tugged at my heartstrings during my daily commutes.

So I opened up the billfold. I don’t want to make myself sound like Fat Joe at a nightclub, but I was dishing out at least a few dollars a week: a buck to the gal off the 11th Avenue exit, a buck to the revolving door of faces above the Lowry Tunnel. And it felt good. But while self-fulfilling, this “humanitarian” act also came with its own set of ethical considerations to challenge the notion that my actions were unambiguously good.

I would be a pretty big jerk if I assumed that everyone I saw begging on the corner was looking for money to buy drugs or alcohol, but I would be naive if I didn’t acknowledge that this is exactly what some of them are doing. And in those cases my money wouldn’t be going toward lifting that person out of their dire situation but would be working to further cement them in it.

There may also be more troubling situations. One is the case of children, particularly those of school age. The presence of children creates a sympathy spike that makes many people feel more compelled to give, and some exploitive parents know that. Hence, increased dollars to those parents could lead to more days on the streets for their children, rather than in school where they belong.

It could also be a scam; many of these beggars could be looking to cheat us out of hard-earned cash with a manufactured sob story. A quick Google search will confirm that these fears are not completely unfounded; scams have been uncovered.

Still, most of the folks I personally see begging on street corners don’t seem to pass the eye test as an elaborate con artist. They’re too normal. Too humble. Too real.

And then there’s me, in my car, my new-used 2013 Ford Fiesta, waiting for the light to turn. Maybe I’m on my way home from work, a well-paying job that blesses me with a life of relative comfort and stability. Maybe I’m on my way to my martial arts gym. The membership fees are steep, but it’s a lifelong dream that I finally have the ability to pursue. Maybe it’s Friday or Saturday, and I’m on my way to blow some money spending time with people I care about. But even if I’m having a bad day — if I got an ill-timed parking ticket that will put the squeeze on that week’s budget, or if I’m near-broke on Tuesday, three days away from Friday’s paycheck — chances are things are still far better for me than they are for that person standing outside my car.

To me that’s the point. There’s a chance this is a junkie or a scammer, but there’s also a chance that it’s just a fellow human in need. I think most people who beg on street corners don’t want to be there. Some are there as a result of bad luck and many as a result of bad choices. Most probably due to a combination. But they all wish they weren’t there.

That’s why I sometimes choose to give. Maybe I’m being naive, and I have a little too much faith in humanity and in the laws of karma and kindness and the truth in paying it forward. But maybe the fact that I’m in my car and they’re on the corner is a good enough reason in and of itself to give every once in awhile, a good enough reason to roll the dice on a person, to take a buck out of my pocket and release it back into the world.

Because, at the end of the day, that world has treated me a whole lot nicer than it has treated the person on the other side of my car window. I must owe something to somebody.

 

Bill Boegeman, of Minneapolis, is a social-studies teacher.