We all have different definitions of misfortune. So many people experience tragedy; perhaps on different levels, but it’s all one and the same. Once reduced to a puddle of helplessness, we all react the same way; the only way we know how - by reaching out and asking for help. But what is helplessness? Does it have a true definition? Is there a standard of tragedy that makes reaching out for assistance acceptable?
Personally, I’m a stubborn f%*k. My pride comes first. I would have to be at my WITS END before I made myself vulnerable to such an act of desperation. I’m not calling all beggars pathetic - by any means - but in my opinion, they better be stuck in a ridiculously veritable hole to stoop to begging for help. So I have to wonder - have they simply given up and have no respect for themselves?
Throughout my travels, I’ve encountered countless outlandish situations and grim encounters with lone strangers begging for money. Charity has no language barriers. It translates across all cultures, permeating the nooks and crannies of every inch of this earth. What’s of value may be different - but the need is just the same. Homeless vagrants plead for money, food and often, the enablement of their own personal vices, regardless of where you are. And everyone who is confronted by these derelicts is forced to make a split-second decision:
Do I help? Or do I pretend they don’t exist?
I was unfortunately blessed with a big heart. So my answer is always the same. But as the next question enters my mind, I wonder if my charitable act will contribute to their future happiness, or their imminent downfall. According to the ever-intelligent Isaac Newtown, “To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. So I guess the question I want to know is...what will this one be?
Hopefully, most people have the charitable thought process we’d all hope humanity would embrace and jump immediately to the “pay it forward” notion. It’s a moral crossroads everybody encounters, more often than they’d probably like. I believe we all need these humble reminders to bring us back down to earth and remind us how blessed we really are. If you’re reading this, you’re probably in a much better place in your life than most of these folks. However, for every true charity case, there’s also an equal and opposite sociopath, just waiting to capitalize on the good-natured hearts of those who hope to make a difference in this crazy world.
Street beggars come in many forms. Children carrying their muddied, underfed infant siblings on their backs in Thailand; the aimlessly wandering Romani gypsies of Eastern Europe; the free-styling homeless rappers of Hollywood Boulevard; the elderly Catholic nuns of Italy, cloaked in tattered habits and begging on their knees.
Even some relatively “successful” beggars down on their luck momentarily manage to pull on the heartstrings of even the biggest of scrooges. They are relentless salesmen, heckling you with their sob stories; Like spiders, they reel you into their webs of sorrow.
I’m quite blatant and sarcastic, as you may have picked up on already if you’ve read any of my previous articles. I’m not judging people who choose this lifestyle - and yes, I said choose. We’ll get to that in a moment. Nor am I trying to discourage those who regularly give to others. And I’m not telling you to rethink your actions, yet. There are just too many who realize the benefits of leaching on our society’s sympathetic weaknesses - and make a damn good living of it too.
Last summer, I planned on creating a documentary video shedding light on a local homeless person. I searched around Columbus, Ohio - my hometown - for weeks, interviewing various beggars that I encountered. I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered. After talking with several vagabonds, I was exposed to the atrocious reality of the street help industry.
A man who walked from car to car, begging with a cardboard sign at the exit of a highway ramp, was the most surprising. He had the decrepit look and the mournful attitude of a true hardened street dweller. However, upon closer inspection, he revealed that I could call him on his iPhone (if I had further questions) that he kept in his brand new Nike backpack that he hid just over the hill from where he was panhandling. Moreover, he confessed that he had a second house in an up-and-coming part of town that we could film at, if need be. It was then that I glimpsed closer at the brand new clothes and shoes hidden under his tattered jacket. After this encounter, I was reminded of the importance of perception. I vowed to pay closer attention to the details before investing too much time in anything - or anyone - from that moment on.
It’s not that he may or may not have had a rough past that led him to that street corner. It wasn’t that he didn’t need the money. But the guy seemed to have a better life than me. And I was bothered. I mean, REALLY bothered. At the time, I was a local business owner, running a portrait photography studio and working 60 hours a week. As successful as my high-end studio was, I still couldn’t afford to live the life I would have preferred. I scraped together rent every month on a small studio apartment well outside of the hip commercial area where my studio was located.
He had the savvy to nurture his six-figured charity case into the construction of a very comfortable lifestyle. Which is all fine and dandy, I suppose - but how to you appreciate that comfort when it’s sourced from a life of leaching?
It turns out that my fears of charity are true realities. But is this true in every case? Surely, there’s the exception to every rule. Our stereotypes and judgements lead me automatically to assumptions of alcohol, drugs and/or gambling. If there was some sort of structure in place that could verify where the money went - a system of checks and balances, per say - I would be a much happier camper when it came to donating my hard-earned cash.
Charity is about believing you are personally contributing to the greater good. It creates some satisfaction within you when you give - unless you experience the knee-jerk reaction that whispers to you that you’ve just been “had”.
For a short time after this documentary let-down, I had altogether stopped giving. Anything. Since then, I’ve lived in downtown Columbus. Anyone who has had the experience of living and working in a downtown metropolis know how often you are approached. Nowadays, I’ve decided to give again, but I take it on a case-by-case basis. I decide in the few short moments that I have when encountering them if I think they are being sincere. You eventually force yourself to examine the details; you train yourself to sense the bulls%&t.
Interrogate them on their story. Why are they in the place that they are now? Ask them what they will do with the money and look them in the eyes. Do you believe them? Do they hold your gaze? Are there drug tracks anywhere? Look down. Are their shoes deceivingly new? Chances are, they’re the rule, not the exception.
Now, I don’t think you should play 20 questions with every beggar you encounter. That’s a risk I’m not advising you to take. Use caution - homeless people can be quite deranged, unhinged and at times, exceedingly dangerous. Proceed with hesitation if you have decided to continue to give. You can always haphazardly donate pennies or a dollar here and there and just move on. But I guess I’m just willing to take that risk. I like to meet new people, and I love to hear their stories. You never know - you may just make a new friend. Sometimes a good heart-wrenching story will touch you; humble you; make you really think. I believe I need that feeling as a reminder - even as often as everyday. Sometimes, I take the time to sit and spend five minutes to get to know them. And their story moves me. And I’ll make a larger investment if I think they really deserve or need my help.
Do you give? What have you witnessed or encountered? Any outlandish people or stories? Have you ever been taken by a scam, if so, how? Tell me all about it.