Beggars, Buskers and Bums: To Give, or Not to Give?

Almost anywhere your wheels roll in the world, chances are, you’ll encounter someone who asks you for money.

The Meetles busk in the New York subway, for tips. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

When it happens, what do you do?

I have seen thousands of them in my travels. Some sit on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, shaking a styrofoam cup with a few coins in it. Some hold a markered-up piece of cardboard near the exit to I-94 in Minneapolis. Some kneel in the middle of the sidewalk in Paris, in the rain, hands stretched to the sky. Some, in Berkeley, crouch in dark doorways, smoking weed. Some concoct believable stories about why they need money–like the woman in Amsterdam who said she needed bus fare to get a spare key from her daughter, because she’d locked herself out of her apartment. It wasn’t until the second time she approached me that day that I knew she was lying. In Vegas, you’ll see them on the strip, wearing funny costumes and posing for giddy tourists. Some play instruments, drum or dance. Others put their children to work for it: juggling in the streets of San Salvador in front of stopped traffic, selling Chiclets or animalitas in Mexico, or wearing traditional Hmong dress, posing for photos in exchange for a few baht in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A boy juggles for tips in the middle of the street in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Sometimes I give. Sometimes I don’t. And the reasoning that leads to that split second decision is complex and ever-changing. Yet one thing remains the same. Whoever they are, whatever they are doing, I feel guilty when I don’t give to those who are asking.

There are people who will never give to beggars, buskers and others who are seemingly down on their luck. The most common reasons I hear: “They’ll just spend it on drugs or booze,” or “They’re an organized group and they pull in XX dollars a year.” And sometimes, “Why don’t they just get a job?”

Shopping carts are chained to a fence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, protected like prized possessions.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Yet, in a nearly worldwide economic slump, the problem seems magnified, even hopeless, and infinitely more complicated. On a recent trip to Zihuatanejo, mariachi bands argued over beach territory. A steady stream of children walked the sand, setting out their wares and looking sad and hopeful, no matter how many times you said “No, gracias.” One elderly couple approached me, the man singing before I could kindly refuse his performance. He was off-key and I felt put upon, so I said “no thanks,” after his performance. It was only after he’d walked away, guided by his companion, that I realized he was blind. Blind, and living in a country without the same social services we enjoy in ours. Begging might be his only way of earning an income, and I, plump with indulgence, blowing disposable cash on overpriced, beachside drinks and food, had refused to help him.

It’s hard for me to look someone who’s hungry, thirsty, crippled or homeless in the eye and say “no.” Particularly because my relative personal wealth is so obnoxiously obvious.

I once asked a friend who always gives when asked, why she did so – presenting the “booze” or “drugs” argument. She explained that if she were homeless, darn right, she’d need a drink. On a separate occasion, this same person snapped at a beggar when trying to read a map at a bus stop, “Just a minute!” While she read the map, he and I started talking. His speech was slurred, his teeth were rotted. He explained that he had been arrested and thrown in jail because police thought he was drunk, but he wasn’t. He told me he didn’t drink. That his teeth caused him a lot of trouble, so he had a hard time talking. In fact, someone had given him a bagel that morning, and he couldn’t even chew it. We helped him out, but as a result of the encounter, I often reflect upon how people make assumptions, and lack patience when dealing with those on the street.

Maybe down on his luck, maybe just tired, a man naps on the sidewalk in Manhattan in the middle
of the day. He did not ask for spare change. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

It also makes me wonder–why do we give financial gifts to people with expectations of how they will spend it? Are we giving to help them feel better, or ourselves? Isn’t that contrary to the very core idea of a gift? You can earmark donations to charity; should we be able to earmark person-to-person philanthropy? “Here’s a dollar. Don’t spend it on beer, crack, highly-processed foods or scratch-off lottery tickets.” What is the point of even thinking this way?

If a homeless person spends our spare change in the way we want them to, will they finally be worthy of donation without judgement and respect?

If we freely give to someone who spends it on something that brings them even momentary joy, even something that violates our personal moral code, isn’t that the real spirit of a gift?

A woman in the village of Panchimalco, El Salvador, begs for change.
Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

I struggle most with whether to give to children who are begging, busking or selling goods on the streets. In doing so, I fear I’m supporting a system or culture that condones making children work. And that’s something I don’t want to contribute to. Yet, even this is complicated. Certainly, the system won’t change just because I didn’t give my quarter to one child. And, I’m not helping them by not giving. I’ve really taught them a lesson by sending that child home empty handed, haven’t I?

A young girl in traditional Hmong dress poses for photos in exchange for baht
in Chiang Mai, Thailand, while her mother stands by and watches, unseen by 

the camera.  Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

Like I said, it’s complex. So sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t. I justify this by trying to give to carefully-chosen, reputable charities that serve the poor and needy, hoping they are good stewards of my dollars. I probably don’t give enough. I weigh the needs relative to my values: what’s more important? Toys at Christmas, or water for those who don’t have it? The arts? Or food for the hungry? Monuments? Or education?

It’s okay to give at this high level, to the people who provide services for the populations you want to help. But it doesn’t help when you’re on the sidewalk facing someone in need. Charity also needs to trickle down to the streets and sidewalks. And it is there that I believe a great crime is being committed.

Sometimes it’s a muttered sentence.

Sometimes it’s a put-down.

Sometimes it’s in turning away and pretending that we don’t see what we don’t want to deal with.

A woman dressed in a showgirl costume, poses for photos in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

It’s okay if we don’t want to give to those who ask, but in making that choice and dealing with our own conflicting emotions about the economic issues we all face, we must remember that we are all people. Sure, that woman pushing a stolen grocery cart filled with trash might look a mess. That man passed out on the subway car might smell bad. The guy sitting on a crate in front of the grocery store might be missing some teeth and wearing the same clothes he did yesterday. We don’t know what brought them to this point. Heaven willing, we will never know it first hand.

But we do know they are human, just like us. Hungry for acceptance. Thirsting for respect. Aching for something that will take away the pain and sadness that this life deals out, often disproportionately.

It’s not always easy, in fact it’s often quite uncomfortable and awkward, but I try to treat beggars I encounter as human beings, whether I drop a coin in the cup or not. How? I look them in the eye. I say, “Hello.” I say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any spare change,” and I mean it. I wish them luck. I smile. I share a short conversation with them. I don’t always feel brave enough to do it, but I feel better when I do.

By acknowledging their humanity, it is my hope I’m giving them a gift greater than the value of my spare change.

Or maybe I’m just trying to assuage my guilt.

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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