You can’t wish a beggar a happy birthday and then do nothing for him.
I doubt it’s a rule, morally speaking, but maybe it should be unless he’s clearly already in the middle of a good time.
If he’s sat where he always is, wrapped in blankets against the cold, and tells you it’s his birthday, and that he awoke that morning to two other homeless people stealing the money he was trying to raise to get into a hostel, what do you do?
If you’re me, you pull a sympathetic face then immediately lock onto the birthday thing, and ask if he’s had any cake.
Sometimes I piss myself off. As if cake is his priority. As if cake is even a necessity for a birthday. As if celebrating his life when he’s living on the streets in abject nothingness, is even a thing he really wants to do?
In my defence, he brought it up.
I think I wished him happy birthday anyway, in my blundering, dull way (that I’ve described to my far more switched-on sister as being akin to a goldfish bomping its nose repeatedly against the glass of the tank).
Bomp. Bomp. Bomp.
Happy birthday Mr Beggar man.
I try not to be too stupid, most of the time, but so often I’m in my own little oblivious world, I do (or don’t do) a thing before it even registers that what I’ve done (or didn’t) was, even generously speaking, idiotic.
I do try to notice people who beg, especially when they’re often there, and particularly when the temperature is edging freezing. I don’t usually know extra facts like birthdays, or whether they were robbed (or peed on by passers-by, or had their belongings scattered, or were harangued by the police, or subject to abuse, or any of the other everyday torments they’re vulnerable to), but I do tend to assume if they had anywhere better to be, they’d be there.
This chap, I like. He’s polite in asking for change, and isn’t aggressive. He sits, he smiles and says thank you to the people who give to him. He likes hot chocolate. If he’s got enough food, he says he’s fine. He doesn’t come across as grabby or uncouth. He seems sad, but I suppose that’s par for the course. He seems to be quite a gentleman, and hasn’t let hard times erode his good manners.
I still haven’t asked him his name, and that bothers me. Lots bothers me. I want to do more, but I know it’s not my responsibility, and I’m wary of how much I might prove willing to take on. I want to help but I know I can’t fix things for him.
It’s been many years of thinking (and overthinking) on my part to come to a place of peace with giving to people who beg. I’m inconsistent in applying my own rules. I’m guilty of walking away without helping. I’ve been ashamed of the little I’ve given, or feel ridiculous about how much I’ve given. I’ve been upbraided in the street by a belligerent stranger who saw me giving money to someone, and vehemently disagreed with my opting to do as I wished with my own fun (I told him to mind his own business.) I’ve wondered extensively about the pros and cons of giving to charities which claim to help people in poverty, rather than giving directly to them. I’ve given food and items instead of cash. I’ve run the gamut.
“They’re just going to spend it on drugs and alcohol.” Maybe, but if I am part of a culture which celebrates and encourages women who have a glass of wine after a hard day, who am I to judge if a person on the streets wants to get shitfaced and forget their hardship for a while?
“They’re just scammers – they’ve all got houses.” I’ve experienced first–hand the ‘help’ that can be proffered through the government welfare system in the UK. They might well have a room somewhere, and still be unable to afford food or clothes or basic amenities. Four walls and a roof is a start, but it’s a long way from able to manage life, if that’s all it is.
“They all have mobile phones – they’re not really poor. They probably make more than I do.” When you’re on the streets and trying to survive, or get off them, a mobile phone is a life-line. It’s absolutely a priority. And if they made more than you do, they wouldn’t be there. If they had your abundance, and the relative stability of your life, they wouldn’t be there.
In the end, the arguments boil down to unwillingness to help, for whatever reason. I’m resigned to the fact that people of all walks of life will hunker down and act without a shred of compassion for those their actions (or lack, thereof) might influence.
I prefer to err on the side of kindness.
If a person in dire straits chooses to use what I give them for ill, on their own head be it – it ceases to be my business as soon as my donation is made. Of course I would prefer to think they all work diligently to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but I think the reality is rather different, and the situation is more akin to trying to lift two buckets off the ground whilst standing in them.
Having been in the position of urgently needing funds in order to make rent, and having lived under the shadow of counting every penny to ensure all demands could be met, I have a somewhat-maybe-nearish understanding of the misery and terror that penury might hold.
It impacts everything.
It affects everything.
It becomes everything.
I was very blessed by family and friends who put their hands in their pockets to help me out and see me through. I didn’t go under, but spent far longer than I’d ever like to again barely treading water. It was desperately miserable.
Now I’ve got things stable and am no longer desperately miserable, I look on my small abundance with eyes that have seen lack. Now I’ve known people who have lived on the streets, I look on my small abundance with eyes that have seen what it is to live with only what can be begged for or taken. Now I’ve seen abject poverty in Kenya, I look on my small abundance with eyes that have understood the measures to which desperate people can resort.
And having seen all that, and having abundance (despite any ‘but you earned it’ type argument to the contrary), all I can see is the small differences I can make – the small embetterings of lives so impoverished.
I still fail. I still spend frivolously (and why shouldn’t I?). I still enrich my own life first. I’m still largely sensible with my income. But I give, and I will continue to give, as long as I have anything left worth giving…and not only because there but for the grace of God go I.
It’s simpler than that: we’re all human.
We need each other.
Or at least, I need to think we do.