Sunday, August 26, 2007

Planned Giving

In her comment on my previous post, Jean said:
"When I'm in the United States, I often hear people praising the European welfare states for doing a better job of taking care of their tired, their poor, their sick, and their hungry - but when I am here in France, I still see just as many beggars on the train on my way to work or on the sidewalk on my way to church. I have been coming here for twenty years now, and it seems to me that the number has remained constant through every change of political party in power whether the president was Mitterand, Chirac, or Sarkozy. Sometimes giving feels right, sometimes it feels wrong, and always, always, always the decision itself feels difficult.

"If you or any of your readers happen to have any thoughts about this particular problem, I would be very glad to hear them."
I've been thinking about this problem since at least 1987, when I moved from New Jersey to New York City. I'd encountered beggars before that, of course, since I'd worked in the city for years and lived there part-time, staying with my father and stepmother on weekends, but becoming a full-time Manhattan resident brought the issue into new and sharper relief.

I lived on 110th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. The subway stop was half a block away. To catch the train to work in the morning, I had to walk past a literal line-up of homeless people, six to twelve a day, all with their hands out.

I couldn't help all of them, and I didn't have the skills or the time to evaluate who needed my spare change most; and at that point in my life, I didn't have all that much spare change, anyway. And there was the ever-worrying "But won't they just spend it on drugs or alcohol?" question.

Important digression: In 1986, when I was still living with my mother, I had -- very, very briefly, which was probably a good thing all around -- dated James Ellroy, the somewhat notorious and extremely colorful noir crime novelist. James, as anyone who's even slightly familiar with his biography knows, spent ten years homeless on the streets of L.A., addicted to speed and alcohol. He wrote his first novel, Brown's Requiem, while he was working as a caddy at an L.A. golf course; he composed the manuscript longhand, standing at a dresser between rounds because there wasn't a desk. By the time I met him, he'd been sober and drugfree for years, and was starting to sell movie rights to his books, a fact he celebrated by buying extremely expensive cashmere sweaters. But whenever he got a royalty check for Brown's Requiem, he sent ten percent to the broken-down alcoholic caddy at the golf course who'd been the inspiration for one of the characters in the book -- and whenever people on the street asked him for money, he gave them whatever he had, no questions asked.

One day we were approached by a young guy who was clearly high as the proverbial kite, and who delivered an incomprehensible, jittery monologue about why he needed money. James, as usual, emptied his pockets. Afterwards, I shook my head and said, "Aren't you afraid he's just going to spend the money on drugs?"

James looked at me and said, very gently, "Susan, I'm still alive today because when I was a drug addict on the streets, people gave me money without asking me what I was going to do with it."

I've never forgotten that, and I didn't forget it on 110th Street, either. But I couldn't afford James' generosity, and that morning gauntlet was intimidating. I was sharing an apartment with several other women, and we spent a fair amount of time agonizing over this. For a while, we favored choosing one guy (they were almost always men) and buying him a meal at the bagel shop on the corner, but picking only one person was hard, and the meals weren't that cheap. One of my roommates took pity on a fellow who always slept in a doorway on the block and gave him a pillow, but was outraged, a few days later, when the pillow was gone. (She was mad at him for losing it; even then, it seemed more likely to me that someone had taken it from him.) One of my roommates became completely disgusted with all the beggars, whom she dismissed as ungrateful charlatans, and stopped giving any of them anything. Various other people I knew decided to give to reputable social-service agencies but not to individuals, and I did a little of that, but it didn't lessen the pangs I felt walking past all those outstretched hands.

I kept agonizing. Someone I knew shared a strategy: figure out how much you can afford to give away that day. Break it down into quarters or singles or whatever, and put it in your pocket. Whenever someone asks you for a handout, give that person one of the quarters or dollar bills. When the money's gone, it's gone, and you've done what you can do for that day.

I did this for a while, but it made the morning walk to the subway even more harrowing, since the regulars quickly figured out what I was doing and eyed my pockets.

I lived full-time in New York until 1990, and the question never got too much easier, although I did figure out a few permanent guidelines:

* I wouldn't give money to anyone who tried to frighten me, guilt-trip me, or engage in any kind of emotional blackmail. For a while, every ATM in the city had a homeless attendant or two who'd open the door for you and then expect a tip. They didn't get any from me, because I could open my own door just fine, thank you.

* If I'd heard a particular story before and realized that the person was lying, that person got no money, either.

* I'd cheerfully give money to anyone who entertained me, or even tried to. I still fondly recall one fellow who worked the #1 Broadway line, and who distinguished himself from the competition by toting around a beaten, bashed-in saxophone. He'd play screeching, ear-splitting noise for a few minutes, stop, grin at everybody in the subway car, and say brightly, "Who'll give me twenty-five cents to stop doing this?" Almost everyone laughed, and a good many reached for their spare change. Anything that made my commute less tedious was worth a quarter or two!

* I was also more likely to give money to people who explained carefully what they did and didn't need. One evening on the subway, a young woman with a toddler came into my car and asked politely for everyone's attention. She needed short-term financial help, she told us. Her baby's father had walked out on them. She had a place to live, and she was signed up with Welfare and would start receiving those benefits in a certain number of days. Once she got her first check, she'd be fine, but in the meantime, here were her expenses. She proceeded to give us a detailed budget breakdown: so much per week for diapers, so much per day for babyfood, so much per day (a very modest amount) for her own meals. Could anyone help?

A lot of people helped. It was a calm, impressive performance. One woman sat down next to her and started talking about housing help, and the young mother said patiently, "Thanks so much, but I have an apartment. That's not the problem at the moment." Because she limited her claim, she got more from her listeners.

In 1997, when Gary and I moved to Reno, I stopped encountering homeless people -- as I had almost every day back East -- because I started driving. Cars are terrific insulation, but that insulation bothered me. I didn't want to become complacent about my own level of privilege. One of the reasons I started going to church was to get more involved in helping people: as a direct result, I began volunteering with our community's Family Promise network -- St. Stephen's was a host congregation for homeless families (parents and children) for quite a few years, and I served on and off as our volunteer coordinator -- and also started volunteering at the emergency room, which is one reliable way to interact with homeless people in a safe environment.

Somewhere in there, I met a very wise Catholic man who responded to the "should we give them money?" issue by saying this: "If someone pretending to be homeless scams you, the deception is that person's sin. If you assume that a person in need is scamming you and refuse to help, your hardheartedness is your sin." This man, like many others I know, favors the "give what you can afford when you're comfortable doing so" approach. I once discussed my Catholic friend's comments with my fundamentalist-atheist father (who's actually one of the most Christian people I've ever met), and he said, "If you aren't being scammed once in a while, you aren't being generous enough." Some of the people out there are lying; many aren't.

I've also now met a number of formerly -- as well as currently -- homeless folks, all of whom report that the most difficult thing about being homeless is feeling invisible. All of them say something like this: "If you don't want to give money, don't; that's up to you. But please, please, make eye contact! Say hello. Treat us like people, because we are."

The homeless person to whom I'm most generous (although not as generous as I promise myself I'll be, or as I wish I could be) is also the homeless person I know the best: my friend A in Berkeley, about whom I've posted at some length. This reinforces the point of my homily this morning: relationship lies at the heart of generosity.

Since moving to Reno, I've noticed that when we visit San Francisco, I'm usually badly startled the first time I'm approached for change, and usually don't have any in my pocket. I don't like taking out my wallet on the sidewalk, so when we go to the city, I try to remember to put change in a pocket so I won't be caught unprepared. When I am unprepared, I usually say something like, "Sorry, I can't help you today," but I try to smile and make eye contact.

I'm not perfect at any of this.

In summary, my recommendations would be:

1. If you can, try to give a little bit of money, as much as feels comfortable, without asking what the person is going to do with it. It's a gift.

2. Even if you don't give money, do make some sort of human contact. It will be as good for you as for the person in front of you!

3. Homeless-service agencies always need funds, but personal involvement is just as generous and far more life-changing (for both sides). There are a number of programs -- Family Promise, local soup kitchens, and so forth -- that provide safe, structured ways to interact with this population.

4. For a superb book on helping the homeless, see Christine Pohl's Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Among other things, she does a great job of talking about how to set boundaries and recognize burnout.

Oh, and here's a grim cautionary tale. A young security guard at the hospital told me about a friend of his father's, a very scraggly looking member of a motorcycle gang. This gentleman was in San Francisco one weekend and, while crossing the street, was hit by a speeding car, which threw him onto the sidewalk. He landed in a doorway, blacked out for a while, and -- when he came to -- started asking passersby for help.

No one would help him, or even look at him, because they assumed he was homeless and only wanted their money. He lay there for two days, and when someone finally did realize that he was hurt and called 911, the medical care came too late to save his legs, which had to be amputated. They could have been saved if he'd gotten prompt assistance.

Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. And so forth.

Oh, and: lots of homeless people are kids. You all knew that, right?

Whew! I told you I had a lot to say about this! Would any of you care to add your two cents?


  1. As you know, I'm a writer and therefore have an erratic income. Most of the time, I don't give to beggars. I say "Sorry, I'm having a hard week myself," or "Catch me after the first of the month". (My husband gets paid on the first.) On the first, I put $20 in toonies in my pocket and give it to whoever asks until it's gone. When money comes in for me, I do the same, only more so. We also give to local homeless charities, but as you say, it isn't the same.

    I used to never give to beggars, for the same reasons you mention. Then one day I'd been swimming, and I was going home, with nothing in my bag except a wet towel and swimsuit, when a guy stopped me quite politely and asked if I could help, and I said sorry, I've been swimming and I don't have any cash on me, and he said to have a nice day. And I thought about how different this was from most of my encounters with homeless people and scammers and the difference was that it was a real human interaction. And I realised that ignoring them and brushing them off was bad for me.

    One time I was walking from one metro station to another, with a pocket full of toonies, and I realised I'd walked past a guy with a cup sitting on a bench, so I went back and gave him a toonie and said "Sorry, I didn't see you." He actually got tears in his eyes. It made me realise just how much people must walk past ignoring him, and how the being ignored in itself must suck. That guy always says hello to me now.

    I don't give to people who are clearly scammers. I roll my eyes at them. If people ask me for money in the name of Jesus or (as happened all the time in Rome) various saints, I specify that anything I'm giving them, I'm giving them out of secular humanist kindness.

  2. applawz4:50 AM

    All of that holier-than-thou preaching - you have just chronicled a long list of how to maintain distance and height from which to maintain separation and to look down on PEOPLE who have no shelter, no dignity and are deemed by you as requiring qualification before you will interact with them. An air traffic control manual on control and separation of yourself from those who have been stripped of everything tangible, stripped of a place in society, and stripped of their inherent dignity and worth. And then you preached this to others so that they may become like you, as if you are a model to be followed. You use "A" as a story subject, but you never do anything to develop a real relationship with him. It's always all about the holiness, wonderfulness and noblesse oblige of saint Susan, isn't it?

  3. Alan Mencken wrote a musical called "Weird Romance", half of which was based on Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." It includes a beautiful song from the point of view of P. Burke while she's still homeless, called "Stop and See Me".

    I'm not good about giving, but I always say something on the street ("Not today, sorry", etc) unless the beggar is rude or scary. On the subway I'm more cold-hearted, since I don't think people should beg in a captive space. (And I agree with you about the doors to ATMs.)

    It's true that some of them are scamming, though I think it's stretching the word. Most of the ones who have a practiced story no doubt have one because they've found it more effective than telling the truth, and they still really are homeless and in need, even if it's because they're a drug addict (or, just as likely, mentally ill. or both). I tend not to be too judgmental, because I would have been homeless but for the generosity of friends, and I know how threadbare society's safety nets are.

    But I understand your roommate's anger about "ungrateful charlatans". This is one of the reasons I think the lowest parasites of society are con men: they weaken the fabric of trust that holds society together, especially in cities where we all have to place trust in complete strangers hundreds of times a day. Getting scammed does damage to human generosity.

    (I didn't know that about James and giving.)

    I wrote a Goofus & Gallant (well, my own conception of G & G) piece about this a few years ago. My friend Andy responded with an approach that seems fundamentally decent to me:

    "A while ago, I realized that trying to judge which beggars deserve money and which don’t was, well, bad for me. They’re almost all liars (But try to spot the ones that aren’t), and they almost all are in serious need of cash for some reason (Ditto). I realized that the act of judgement here was inapppropriate. What I’m engaged in is an act of charity; conflating it with an act of judgement is in some way wrong. At the very least it sends a mixed message to myself.

    "Here’s how I approach this problem: It would be consistent to give all beggars money, and it would be consistent to give to none. I can’t afford one, and the other is just plain uncharitable. So every now and then I decide that I’m going to give something to the next person that asks me for money, and I do just that thing - whoever asks me, however little he deserves it. I set aside a buck for whoever asks for it. How often I do this depends largely on how much I can afford right now.

    "It works for me. I don’t spend my time judging my fellow men without data, I don’t give away more than is good for me, and I don’t keep all my money for myself when others are in need. It’s a compromise I can live with."

  4. Thanks, everybody!

    Applawz: Did you read the posts about A? If so, what's your definition of "real relationship" that isn't being met?

  5. Applawz is just trolling. At least, that's the most generous way to read it.

  6. Soren: Yeah, that's entirely possible. Another way to read it is that applawz is angry and hurting and lashing out -- all of which are symptoms of someone who needs to be listened to (although such folks often wind up NOT feeling listened to because their anger has driven everybody away).

    As I said in the post, I don't respond to guilt trips, but I am curious about what this person thinks any of us should be doing that we aren't. In my experience, though, such posters don't usually return to see if they've gotten responses, so we probably won't hear from him/her again. And if further responses are nasty rather than constructive, I won't publish them; this is exactly why I moderate comments!

  7. applawz9:36 AM

    Yes, I read them. The "A" surely is scarlet. You judge from the perspective that someone has to be worthy of your attention in order to respond to it. You personally look for their entertainment value as one criterion of their "worthiness". You create algorithms for determining the conditions under which you will consider "giving" your attention or "charity". However, true relationships are not to be had when one is dispensing of small, insignificant tokens.

    It's you who are needing the charity - the very humanness and understanding that you so blithely don't perceive in others. Where there are beggars, and people who wear rags or clothing not congruent with the weather, there is your own failure.

    I don't write elegantly or well, so I'll just end with a recommendation to re-read A Christmas Carol. Dickens writes it compellingly.

    One could make the argument that Jesus walked the walk much more than he talked the talk. It seems, if memory serves, that there are many more passages written about his active seeking of those in need, addressing the needs exclusive of making worthiness judgments, and not using the recipient of that assistance - which was of life sustaining and nurturing essence - not of token change - as a means to providing self congratulations and preaching fodder for one's own worthiness and inherent value.

    And thanks for labeling me a troll.

    YOu really dig your labels.

  8. Hi, applawz! Thanks for coming back.

    I didn't label you a troll. That was someone else.

    I agree that homelessness and poverty are everybody's failure. It isn't yet clear to me, though, exactly what you want me (or others) to do. What would a "real relationship" with A look like? What, specifically, are you recommending that I do? If I need more humanity and compassion, by what acts would those traits be known?

    For whatever it's worth, A seems to consider the relationship a real one. Isn't he the best judge?

    I actively seek those in need in my volunteer work in the hospital and in my volunteer work with homeless families. It seems to me you've set up a double bind here: on the one hand, such seeking is what you say we all need to do, but on the other, people who do so are only congratulating themselves. Or is your point here that I should perform the acts without talking about them?

    What do YOU do about these things? If you have an ideal model of compassion and humanity, please share it. The world surely needs it!

    In any case, I'm sorry that the post sounds self-congratulatory. I was trying to describe my struggles with a difficult subject; I've never claimed either perfection or sainthood, and I'm very aware of my limitations. I'm sure I could do better, but I could also do worse.

  9. Feel free to leave this comment unpublished, but I am compelled to say, Susan, that your post can only sound self-congratulatory to someone eager to find it so. You are an unusually careful and thoughtful writer on sensitive subjects. I'm afraid there is a kind of personality that will always find your kind of care and thought to be insincere, but it's certainly not due to anything in your words. I say this as a far less careful writer and thinker who aspires to your level of honest self-analysis and decency.

  10. Thank you, Scraps!

    I think part of the problem here is that writing about other people can always seem like an act of appropriation, and indeed presents thorny ethical tangles. But I for one don't see that less communication in the world would be a good thing . . . .

  11. Anonymous2:22 PM

    Susan, I couldn't resist after reading your post. I just received this from a retired welfare worker. Sharon

    A guy walks into the local welfare office, marches up to the
    counter and says,
    "Hi... You know, I just HATE drawing welfare. I'd really rather have a

    The social worker behind the counter says, "Your timing
    is excellent. We just got a job opening from a very wealthy old man who
    wants a chauffeur and bodyguard for his beautiful nymphomaniac daughter.
    You'll have to drive around in his Mercedes, but he'll supply all of your
    clothes. Because of the long hours, meals will be provided. You'll be
    expected to escort her on her overseas holiday trips. You'll be provided a
    two-bedroom apartment abov e the garage. The starting salary is $200,000 a

    The guy, wide-eyed, says, "You're bullshittin' me!"
    The social worker says, "Yeah, well... You started it."

  12. Hi, Sharon!

    I know a lot of people who've been on welfare. They're all MUCH happier having jobs.

  13. Karen5:51 PM

    I spent a year in Norway in 1989-1990 and didn't encounter begging on the street. Norway is, I think, a social democracy with heavy taxes, and people are taken care of by their government from cradle to grave. No one starves and no one is terribly rich, either.

    I don't give money to panhandlers because I feel I need every penny I earn. But I do appreciate soup kitchens and food banks that appeal to the community for donations. I've visited churches where people are encouraged to bring a can of food. Also, I've worked at places that also have food drives for the food bank.

  14. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  15. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to write such a lovely long post - especially at a time when your other recent blogs have often talked about how many things you have to do these days. And thank you to everybody else who has written in as well - your comments have given me many things to think about and many possible examples to follow, and I appreciate it.


  16. It's a great post about a topic that many struggle with. You've obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the subject, and I'm inspired to adopt some of your suggestions.

    One of the main problems I've struggled with is that a good number of homeless people also have underlying mental health issues that make them unpredictable. And while fear of this (my bias) shouldn't be a reason to be afraid to approach/help them on the street, I struggle with it because if they end up hurting me, it's not their fault but my own because I wasn't careful about it.

    It's like the story of losing $1000 - if you leave it on a table and someone steals it, you cannot blame the thief because you shouldn't have tempted that person. Does that make sense?

    Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  17. Wandering Visitor,

    Thanks for your comments!

    As for your question, I don't believe in blaming victims. If you leave $1,000 on a table and it's stolen, it's true that you were careless -- but an honest person still wouldn't have stolen the money. We all need to be careful not to make ourselves vulnerable to dishonest or dangerous people, but their dishonesty and dangerousness are still their responsbility, not ours.

    As for mental-health issues among the homeless: most mentally ill people aren't dangerous. So while the chronically homeless are more likely to be mentally ill than the general population, that doesn't, in and of itself, make them a threat.

    From things A has said, I'm pretty sure he has mental-health issues, but I feel safe with him. There's another homeless guy on the same block who sends out much more intense "crazy vibes," and with him, I'm much more wary. But I've still had conversations with him; I just make sure that our interactions occur in full view of anyone else on the street (when you think about it that way, public interactions are safer than private ones), and when my gut tells me that he's gotten a bit too twitchy for comfort, I move on.

    Caveat: Both A and this other man initiated conversation with me, rather than the other way around. I don't think I'd walk up to any homeless person who didn't seem to be inviting interaction and just start chatting; to me, that would feel like an invasion of privacy, which is in precious short supply under those living conditions.


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