The gift of charity begins…on the High Street

Dear Karen,

Tonight, loaded down with Christmas shopping, I walked by 3 homeless men, all of whom asked me quietly and politely “can you spare some change?”

A beggar in Via Montenapoleone, the "fash...

I see a beggar and start preparing my avoidance strategy a block away. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, january 20 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I tend to give them my “I’m too absorbed in that shop window to hear you properly” smile, and answer back equally politely and quietly, “No, sorry”.

Worse, I’ve been known to pretend I don’t hear them, and continue walking as if they’re invisible.

Each time I do this, I feel my face tighten, my hands clench and my lips beginning to purse.  I feel guilty.

I walk on, rationalizing to myself why I don’t stop to help these men out:

1.  I don’t happen to have change sitting in my hand as I walk.  It’d take at least a minute of juggling my bags to get to my change purse and pull out enough to look generous but not too much to look a target. (Just keep a coin or two in your pocket, Wendy.  There, problem solved!)

2.  I give to charity already.  I can’t give to every street beggar I see or I’ll be broke.  (So, giving a £3 a day is going to break the bank?  I don’t think so)

3.  I don’t have the time to stop.  (Why, where are you going now?  Oh, that’s right:  home.  How ironic)

4.  That one guy who dresses as Santa and even has a costume for his dog…surely he can’t be that hard up for money!  I’m not giving to him. (Are you saying that because he’s showing ingenuity and a bit of humour, he’s not needy?  Wow, you’re tough)

I saw a little girl wanting to slow down and read a man’s homemade sign the other day; her mother pulled her hand and rushed her on her way.

The sign read, “I’m Hungry, Need Food”.

I wonder what message that little girl learned from her mother’s actions?


Mother’s eyes straight ahead, but what is this little girl thinking as she walks by? (Photo credit: zoetnet)

This isn’t a letter with a nice, pleasing ending, where I buy everyone a turkey and rain dollar bills down from my window onto the street below.  I have no answers.

I read an interesting article on about homelessness.  What I learned from it was this:

anyone can become homeless and it happens almost without you even realizing it.

The author of the piece was employed as a shift worker, working one week in the woods, one week off, one week in the woods, etc.  He depended on his roommate to hand in the rent cheques, but sadly for him, one month the rent was due, the roommate’s cheques were bouncing and the landlord was unhappy.

When he came home after a week’s absence, he discovered all his worldly possessions had been put on the sidewalk by the landlord.  He’d been kicked out.

New York - East Side eviction. Two men standin...

You’ve been evicted. What now? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a place to live, he couldn’t get a new job.  You need a permanent address to put on your application.  He slept in his car.  He kept his forestry job, which gave him room and board for 2 weeks of the month.  He discovered friends don’t mind taking you in, but not on a permanent basis.  He bought himself a camp stove to cook his food but he couldn’t use the stove in the city limits, so had to drive to a campsite to cook.  This journey took a lot of gasoline, which is expensive.  He had no fridge to keep his food, so had to buy meal by meal each day as there was no place to store it or keep it fresh.

He states that a lot of homeless people don’t become homeless because they’re addicts, but the other way around.  With no internet or TV to entertain himself, drugs were a welcome relief to the tedium of long days with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

He also said that a friend of his told him that the first thing he did when he became homeless was to buy a gym membership.  Access to a gym meant he could shower every day, a definite plus for someone who wants to look (and smell) presentable for job interviews.

He lived like this for 6 months.  I couldn’t imagine living like that for 6 days.

I think of this story every time I pass one of these men on the street.  Each of them has a story to tell, and perhaps one of them is similar to the one above – or not.  Who am I to judge?

I’d like to think I’ll keep spare change in my coat pocket this winter, and maybe I will, for a day or two, until I forget to replenish it.

Then what?  Will I go back to ignoring these men, tightly smiling at them as I whisk by, doing my best to ignore them?

I don’t know.


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13 thoughts on “The gift of charity begins…on the High Street

  1. I saw a sweet idea one time of a comfort pack, suited more to America where everyone is in cars or a special trip. A shoe box filled with basic needs like gloves and tooth brush, tooth paste a bottle of water. some cash a book and so on. I loved the idea but have not done it yet. maybe a trip to Oxford where there are homeless on the street is in order this year.

  2. I don’t know the answer, either. I think we each make a judgment call based on where WE are at the time. Do I have spare money with me right now? Does the person look like he needs my help? Have I just given to another person? Do I have the time? Who is with me? There are a lot of factors that go into this decision, and I must admit, they are not all the “right” ones but they are certainly the timely ones. At least in my opinion.

    • You’re right, of course – in the summer months, I hardly give it a thought, but in the colder months, I feel sad for anyone facing the elements with only an old sleeping bag (or worse) to protect them. Thanks for coming by.

  3. I used to give to the homeless people on the street, but I stopped when it was brought to my attention that our homeless people very rarely actually need the money for what they say they need it for.

    I don’t know about the situation in London, but here in Ottawa — particularly in the downtown market area, where I work and where the homeless people congregate — we have plenty of shelters that house and feed the homeless. If someone asks for spare change, they’re almost certainly using it to buy alcohol or feed a drug habit. Some will even admit that if you ask them directly! (Personally, I’ve tried handing actual fresh food over to someone who claimed he needed money for food, and while he accepted it politely, it didn’t stop him from going right back to asking the person behind me.)

    They’re also only the visible face of the problem, and by committing to their full-time begging, I would hazard to guess they’re actually the least likely to get back on their feet as a result of your monetary support. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that giving to the homeless directly contributes to the problem by encouraging more of them to beg rather than work on improving their situation.

    There are now signs up in the Ottawa downtown area that ask people to refrain from giving directly to the homeless, and to put their money towards local charities instead. To this end, they’ve put up “kindness meters”, special orange parking meters that you’re encouraged to deposit your homeless-bound change into instead of handing it over directly.

    As such, I’ve just resorted to a simple “sorry”, or if I’m feeling more wordy, “sorry, don’t have any”. It’s frequently true anyway, due to paying more with cards and less with cash these days. Better to support the silent majority than the vocal minority that spend all their time begging.

    • You’ve certainly given this plenty of thought, and I appreciate your viewpoint.
      For me, the difficulty is in determining which person is in need and which is in it as a full-time job. I remember a woman in HK who cruised the taxi ranks for spare change. She’d wait until about 10 of us were lined up and then she’d saunter over, bowl in hand, smile on face, and she’d nudge us, indicating that she wanted us to put money in the bowl. I was there quite often and so was she. Right or wrong, she annoyed me and I refused to hand over to her. And of course, that was my prerogative.
      I like the idea of a Kindness Meter and I’d add to it daily, if we had one here.
      Thanks for commenting :-)

  4. I used to buy these folks food instead of giving them money, which allayed my fears they’d spend the money on alcohol or somesuch. But, you describe the feeling so well. The tightening, the guilt.

    • When I used to give to charities on the street, they’d give me a sticker to wear, to prove I’d already given so the other volunteers would leave me alone to do my shopping in peace. Sometimes I wish I had a sticker here, saying something like “I give to charity, honestly!”. That might help combat the unnecessary guilt, who knows?

  5. Pingback: Platitudes R Us: How “inspirational” quotes mess with our minds | After the kids leave

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