I’m never sure what to say when asked for ‘a few pence’ by people on the street. Usually I say no, sometimes I give something, and only occasionally do I offer money without being asked. My emotions swing between guilt and self-satisfaction depending on how I’ve responded. But the underlying feelings are irritation for being put in that position and confusion about how to handle it.
I think to myself: Should I respond to people sitting in doorways differently from those who walk up to me? Does it matter whether people offer a reason, however unoriginal, like they have to pay for a fare home? If I knew their circumstances, should I distinguish between those who left home by choice and those forced by circumstances? Or between the mentally ill and the not, and whether mental illness led to their homelessness or is because of it? Should I take account of how they ask or what they look like or their personal hygiene? And does self-help carry any weight – are Big Issue sellers more worthy because they have to pay for a supply of magazines to sell onwards?
Some passers-by offer street people food and drink instead of cash, perhaps not trusting how they’d spend it. If I did this, should I ask what they’d like and take them with me to the shop? Given that they might be alcoholic, should I buy them the bottle of wine they crave? And who am I anyway to specify how another human should spend their money, given that my donation is their income?
Then there’s the question of what to say when I give money. Given that humanity might be all we have in common, a courteous ‘hello’ seems enough, and let the money speak for itself. But I wonder if I should offer more, get into a conversation, recognise rather than ignore someone. And if so, should I offer the same cash and conversation to others along the road or, having given to one, is it now okay to ignore the rest?
And how to say no when asked for money. ‘Sorry mate’ sounds over-friendly and a little patronising; a brisk ‘good morning’ is blatantly ignoring their request; and pretending I haven’t seen them feels cold. Should I be upset if they say something rude or sarcastic, and am I entitled to be rude back? Their blitzing of passers-by carries little personal feeling, so why should I feel bad? Can’t I be as mechanical to them as they are to me? Or if it’s usually the same person, can’t I say: ‘We discussed this yesterday, if you remember?’
But talking would in any case be awkward, I think to myself, and they might resent me for being better off or they might be drunk or violent and threaten me, particularly if they thought I was being patronising and they have a dog. In any case, do I really want to build a relationship? No – so saying nothing is perhaps the safest bet. In reality, anything I do say is trying to make me feel better, not them.
For sure, homelessness and begging is a worldwide issue, perhaps even more prevalent in other cultures. It’s been that way throughout history – except during an event like the Olympics when entire city centres are miraculously cleared of ‘undesirables’ to give visitors a good impression. Isn’t it part of nature’s pecking order? Can’t I simply accept that street people have their world and I mine, and that individually trying to change things would make no difference?
Anyway, in the absence of government interest, aren’t there charities that support homeless people? Isn’t their focussed approach better than anything I can offer? Aren’t they responsible? Oh, and if I contributed to such bodies I could deflect street approaches by saying: ‘It’s okay mate, I’ve already got a direct debit with Shelter – good eh?’
Yes – I think I see clearly now. Street people are not my problem, so I can ignore them with a clear conscience.
Except, I wonder what drove me to such self-examination …
Copyright © Paul Costello August 2016