Monday, January 08, 2007

Question of the Day

For a long time I rode the subway and felt compelled to give money to the poor. As I get older and older I find myself less sympathetic to panhandlers and consequently, I give less often than I did before. On the one hand, my hesitation stems from my realization that we live in America and there are people throughout the world whose need for assistance is far greater (an Oprah-esque approach if you will). On the other hand, I feel that in giving money to panhandlers I'm reinforcing a negative habit and making an uneducated investment in the life of someone in need. I simply can't bring myself to condone the poverty of dignity that is inherent in panhandling.
Do you give money to panhandlers? Please explain why or why not.


Brother Spotless said...

I actually give more now than before for these reasons:

-Even if there are people who "need" it more than the individual standing in front of me, said individual needs the dollar or two moreso than me

-I don't trust religious institutions so I don't give charity in that way, and giving to poor individuals is my Zakat (charity in Arabic).

Call me a sucker, but I feel for them (especially when they have children. Yes, I am a sucker...). My thinking is that I won't be around to make sure that the money I give will go to something other than drugs or alcohol, so I can't worry about what they do with it. I can only give and hope for the best...

solgenique said...

I was once seated in one of those two-seaters on the 3 train last summer on my way to work when a homeless man reading a book decided to sit next to me. I was fine with him sitting next to me (he seemed harmless) until he pulled out his breakfast: Rancid and dirty KFC chicken and fries that he had most likely pulled out of the garbage and saved the night before or early that morning (and I remember the previous night being especially hot).

It still makes me sick today thinking about it.

I give.

Brother Smartness said...

This is the dilemma that I hope this question brings to light; whether we give to benefit ourselves or whether we give for others. I guess true altruism in charity benefits all parties involved, but to what extent does a dollar here and there really help the homeless. When rapping about Hurricane Katrina relief, Jay-Z wrote the following:

“sure I ponied up a mil/But I didn’t give my time/So, in reality, I didn’t give a dime/or a damn/I just put money in the hands/of the same people who left my people stranded”

I guess I’m bringing up two issues here and I’ll address the Hov quotation first because it deals specifically with something that Spotless said. I empathize with you on your feelings about not giving to charities and I think Jay-Z would as well. The issue of giving something of more value (namely, time) hasn’t been resolved though. Just as charities and organization designed to assist others may indeed leave the homeless “stranded,” so too will our money and a box of KFC (so long as these “donations” have no legs). I’m reminded of the feed a man a fish parable that I always manage to mess up.

The second issue deals with why we are giving. And this might deal more specifically with Solgenique’s comment. Are you giving to alleviate that sense of sickness that I’m sure we would all feel were we in the same situation?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know that when I see a panhandler, I see someone who has yet to realize their potential. I see someone who needs a friend that will show them out of poverty more than a stranger who will break them off with a few coins

Brother Spotless said...

So, unless I am willing to help an individual realize their potential I shouldn't give anything? I guess the first thought I have when I see a homeless individual is not about unrealized potential; I see an individual who needs a meal.

To the Jay-Z quote (beautiful, might I add): I don't trust religious institutions because the entire sum of my charity doesn't go to those who need it. The most trustworthy organizations (maybe the Red Cross?) use some of the money to pay for salaries. At least I know my money is going directly to the desired individual. And there's no tax write-off that would benefit me otherwise :-)

But you're right, Smartness: after giving whatever is in my pockets (honestly, some fraction of what is in my pockets), I walk away feeling like I am not really helping, and I'd still feel that way if I gave them everything in my pockets. So there is always more that could be done...

solgenique said...

I give to benefit me.

I don't know if I believe in Karma. If it does exist, I'm hoping I've broken even by now.

Yeah, today I can say that I have a nice job, a place to sleep and my sanity, but I don't know what tomorrow'll bring. I can't imagine being given even 5 cents and not making something out of it to get myself out of that situation.

Truthfully, I don't even think I've once stopped to think to ask myself if I was helping them get off the street. If you ask me if I have some change I can spare, and I do, I'll give it to you. It's just an automatic thing. If you can't do anything with it, that's not my fault.

But will not giving them money help them "realize their potential?"

Brother Smartness said...

Only if in lieu of giving money, you give of yourself to them in some other way.

One could also argue that by giving them money you don't help them realize their potential either. But that's not what you were arguing in the first place.

You seem to have convinced yourself that sparing some change is helping more that it may hurt. After seeing the same people ask me for money over and over again, I can't come to that same conclusion.

Don't get me wrong, I find it admirable for someone to buy a homeless man a bagel every morning. I'd just rather nourish the soul that the body.

Brother Spotless said...

If the homeless man dies of starvation, there's not much soul left to save. But I guess in a nation that wastes so much, there's always some rancid KFC to pull from the garbage...

Also, there's no reason to think you can't nourish the soul and tummy...

Brother Smartness said...

It would be interesting to see the statistics on how many panhandlers die from starvation each year in the US.

solgenique said...

But Smartness, why must it be an either/or situation?

I've had people come on subways and specifically asking for money for things like: paying for a room at the Y; buying a monthly Metrocard to go to work; needing to buy medicine; having lost a wife and your job and now needing to find a place for you and your 4 kids (and the kids were there with him).

You can also help these people and their situational problems. We can't assume that charities can take care of these issues.

solgenique said...

There are over 1,000 soup kitchens & food pantries in NYC and 2,700 in NY State serving 2 million New Yorkers annually. They will serve 60 million meals this year to hungry men, women & children. Everyday they turn away over 2,500 people.

Can't find any stats on folks dying of hunger.