Charity starts at home. Or on the subway. Especially if that’s your home.

A young Thalia, clearly terrified by the NYC subway

When you’re a New Yorker, there are a few rules you pick up pretty quickly about subway behavior.

1.) You let people out before getting on.

2) You don’t make eye contact, especially with those wearing ski masks.

3) Instead of making eye contact, you look at the ads on the wall no matter how bad they are.

4.) It’s okay to check out a subway map without anyone thinking you’re a tourist. What will make people think you’re a tourist is wearing white, generally while being blond.

5.) You give up your seat to pregnant women unless you’re a total asshat.

6.) You generally ignore the panhandlers.

We’ve all developed oodles of justification for this last one–I give to homeless organizations, not individuals. They might just use it for drugs. It will encourage others. I’m better off giving them a sandwich. That guy has all his limbs, can’t he just get a job? Okay, so that guy has no limbs at all–but can’t he just get a job?

But it’s weird. For some reason I’m seeing it with a far more sympathetic perspective right now.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m feeling more abundance of my own this holiday season than I have in years past. I don’t know if it’s the increasingly moving confessions of the 99%, like this story from Mocha Momma. I don’t know if it’s reading posts like one from Queen of Spain about how kindness from strangers matters. I don’t know if it’s boring old liberal guilt.

But I can’t seem to pass a panhandler (or let him pass me) without giving him something.

The guy with the dead look in his eye and the plea for change or something to eat? Clink. The woman with the young child in her arms and the story about abuse and homelessness? Clink. The mariachi band playing La Bamba on the C train? Clink. The guy with no legs, hunched over in a wheelchair on the stairway landing of the 14th Street L stop? Clink Clink.

Maybe my heart grew two sizes larger this week. Maybe it’s the holiday spirit. Or..maybe I just feel fortunate this year to be where we are and not where we have been.

I suppose, if this person has to degrade himself to beg on a subway, wending his way past the Wall Street guys buried in Blackberries, and the holiday shoppers with their crisp bags from Abercrombie and Barney’s at their feet, maybe that’s worth a quarter. Or a dollar. Or maybe what’s more valuable from me is that precious, rare, eye contact, a smile, and a “Merry Christmas, man. Take care of yourself.”

One human being to another human being.

I don’t know if I’m being kind or stupid. I just know it’s what feels right right now.


64 thoughts on “Charity starts at home. Or on the subway. Especially if that’s your home.”

  1. This is the first time that I’ve considered responding anonymously because I’m not proud of my answer.

    I give only when I feel mildly threatened. Maybe it’s in my head. I certainly don’t feel overtly threatened, but there’s a kind of panhandling that I’ve seen that makes me think that it can turn into something else very quickly.

    I love that you have the spirit of giving and I find it inspirational. For years I assumed that a lot of panhandling was for nefarious purposes (drugs! alcohol!) and then I read “Travels with Lisbeth” and realized, basically “whatever gets you through the day.”

    But then I stopped. And I’m not sure why.

    I do know that my children notice the panhandling more than I do. They make the eye contact, they wonder about what happened in someone’s life to get them to that point. They notice the people that have become invisible to so many of us so that we could survive without falling apart every morning. And I’m grateful to my kids and to you, but oof.

    1. Thanks Marinka. I don’t think you have to be ashamed of honesty; and I’m glad I know this is from you because it gives it perspective. I know you’re good people. We all have different lines we won’t cross when it comes to this stuff.

  2. I say kind. I have a hard time ignoring anybody playing music in the trains. Even if the instruments are imaginary. I had to chuckle at reading the ads to avoid eye contact. I have a close bond with Dr. Zizmor.

  3. Sometimes the human contact counts just as much, I agree. I tend to have a couple favourite panhandlers I’ll give to now and again. (Or I did when I ventured beyond the home-school radius on a regular basis.) But even if I’m not going to give, a simple, “Sorry, man. Not today,” is well-received. I can’t support you, but I can acknowledge you, you know?

  4. Nice post. You forgot to mention that you never squeeze into a seat next to a very fat person. You will regret doing it. As far as giving, well, the ones who break my heart are the men and women who walk the subway cars giving the same speech about being out of work, out of luck and hungry. They are thoroughly obnoxious, but how can I not give them money? But I never, ever make eye contact with them.

  5. i come from a small town, and so i never got “properly” inured to panhandlers, even when i lived in a big city or two. i smile and say hi, and i give, if i can. i don’t take out my wallet – that’s the line i draw, but when i am in cities i try to walk with change in my pockets. and even when i don’t have change, i try to say “i’m sorry”, kindly. i try to acknowledge. i am embarrassed by myself, when i don’t.

    i see panhandling as akin to work, to be honest. they’re sitting there, putting in the time. some do it with creativity and panache: them i am particularly likely to reward. there was a guy in the last city i lived in, he sat on the wall outside the public library. and his pitch changed up, but usually went along the lines of “spare some change for some pantyhose, ma’am?” “spare a dime for a man to get a hot tub?” i stopped once, early on, at that one and looked at him, and he grinned at me and said “okay, a hot DOG would be fine too.”

    1. I give extra credit for creativity too. I still remember the guy on the street, years ago, who said, “boy, if I had money I’d take you out for a steak dinner!”

  6. Pretty sure we’ve developed the same code in Chicago – only our ignoring is done mostly done while elevated, instead of below ground.

    I’ve struggled with this same thing. A lot. Where I usually fall is trying to go out of my way to buy a Streetwise ( – this awesome organization that employs the would-be homeless to sell magazines on the street instead of beg. It’s pretty great.

  7. I acknowledge them — whether it’s with a smile, a hello, or a response to their well wishes (these days, I’ve gotten a lot of happy holidays, at which point I will oblige). It’s a bit different for us since we don’t have the daily subway ride, so usually it’s at a stoplight and we’re in our car.

    And if I do have something readily available, I’ll give it.

  8. I don’t live in a large city, so I don’t have exposure to panhandlers to the extent that you might.

    There’s a man who wanders the streets in our downtown area. I used to bristle when my husband would steer me away from him, I ached for how he seemed to neither belong, nor have the fundamental things it seems we should all have—a warm place to go, a way to bathe and acceptance. My stance is that I will always acknowledge a person in some way, whether it’s actually saying something, shaking my head or giving money. I think that any of those things are my right to have as a response.

    Back to this person, he’s become more aggressive though, he waits by doors, rushes toward cars making it impossible for people to open their car door without addressing him. His story is always that he needs bus fare or coffee money. Last night he rapped on my window as I was leaving work. I shook my head, he leaned in closer. I said no and turned away, he kept staring in my car. I felt profoundly violated. I am sad that he crossed that line and that I have the feelings toward him that I do.

    It won’t change my attitude about helping other people, but help he has gotten in the past will likely taper off as he continues to push past what is an acceptable method of soliciting things. I have a new kind of sadness for him.

  9. I go back and forth. I’ve given a $20 bill to a homeless guy, simply because he didn’t harass me for money. Only said hello and that he hoped I had a wonderful day. I said hello back, walked about 10 ft, turned around and gave him money. He was very appreciative.

    Then I’ve seen panhandlers on the corner and when you try to give them something OTHER than money (food, a bottle of water, whatever) they reject it. Because it’s not cash.

    So…I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Even if it’s stupid, it’s still kind.

  10. You’re not supposed to do it because A) It’s illegal, and B) it’s like leaving food out for mice. My friend works for whatever branch of whatever that works at getting homeless off the streets and into shelters or housing and he says you should never give money to panhandlers on the subway.

    It’s obnoxiously annoying, which is bad enough, but it’s also encouraging them to break the law because they know people will take pity on them. There are a lot of ways for homeless people to get help, and a lot of money given to charities and taken from our taxes to help them. Sometimes it pays more (probably a lot more) to pan handle which is why there are a lot of scams on the subway. Sometimes they might use the money for food for their families, and sometimes they might buy drug or alcohol with it, who knows? It’s not the point, and it’s not a judgement. It’s against the law, and it’s potentially dangerous (not all of these people are the nice furry ‘down on their luck’ ragamuffins one or two dollars away from making it back on their feet).

    I hope I don’t sound insensitive, I always give money to musicians playing on the platforms (they’re earning it) (but NEVER to the mariachi bands and musicians on the subways themselves, those guys are assholes). And I often give money to the “neighborhood” homeless guys that I see all the time. It’s not that I blame them for being homeless, or are judging them for having a problem, I sympathize with them, but giving money on the subway is the wrong way to do it for us and for them. It’s a nice thing to do, and it make us feel better, but it’s the wrong place to do it. There’re a lot of homeless people that need your money just as much that haven’t chosen to break the law in order to get it from you, give your money to them instead!

    1. Seriously Nate, do you honestly believe there are enough shelters and social programs for everyone to get help they need? And what about adequate psychological counseling and having enough food to eat? What color is the sky in your world?

      I say if you have something to give, go for it, it whatever way you can.

      1. Marie/Joan – If we can keep the conversation thoughtful and relatively snark free we get a little further, even if we disagree.

        Also, Nate is the father of my children so I have a bit of an obligation to defend him here (even if we disagree).

      2. Hi Marie! No, I don’t honestly believe there are enough shelters or social programs for everyone to get the help they need. Without getting into an argument about something which I’m not qualified to defend with any certainty other than passing knowledge and personal experience (and which I seriously doubt many other people commenting could either) let me just assure you that the sky in my world is whatever color it’s supposed to be.

        I’m guessing you don’t know me, so therefore feel comfortable trying to insult me on a mommy-blog comment page (let alone one that is the mother of my children’s blog), and it seems you either got stuck on one aspect of my post without reading all of it, or more likely, you confused the idea of giving money on the subway (which is illegal) with giving money in general (which I stated that I often do).

        Either way it doesn’t matter. What does matter, I guess, is do you feel comfortable breaking the law, and encouraging other people to break the law for the benefit of the warm fuzzy feeling you get?

        Subway arrest for panhandling was up 79% this year. That’s people getting arrested and going to jail because they are breaking the law (a stupid one, but one that’s meant to keep the subways safer, and get people to and from work without being bombarded by people asking for money, not all of which really need it but that scamming is another issue altogether) because the amount of people willing to encourage them to break the law is enough that it’s worth the risk.

        They can panhandle on the street and not be breaking the law, which is who I give money to, often.

        If that make me a worse person than I’m assuming you consider yourself to be (do you even live in NYC and take the subways?) then so be it.

        If giving money illegally on the subway is the only mark of being a good person, and if finding it obnoxiously annoying to be interrupted by musicians that won’t through the system and get permission to be in the subways like all the other people that do (or even if they don’t they at least have the courtesy to stay on the platforms where I’m not a captive audience), then I guess I’m an asshole.

        I don’t care.

        I chose to not give money on the subway specifically. If you chose to because it make you feel good about yourselves, then great! Just know that it’s against the law, and the reason there are hundreds of people doing it is because of people like you who chose to ignore that fact. There are thousands of homeless people on the street that we walk by with out a second thought just because they haven’t trapped us in a box where we’re forced to listen to them and their oftentimes bullshit stories. Are you saying that those people (the ones not breaking the law) don’t deserve, or need your money as much?

        I guess in the whatever-colored-sky world I live in, I find rewarding the people who don’t break the law or annoy the shit out me over the ones that do to be just as rewarding to me personally. But then again, who am I to say? We’re all just going to do what we do, you know?

    2. Hey, you took my answer! I always acknowledge, a glance, a “no, sorry,” but no cash. While the mouse analogy works (or pigeons), it’s a little unappealing, but that makes my child analogy seem slightly less awful, and for that I’m grateful.

      It’s like the parent who gives in when the child whines and cries — it teaches the child to whine and cry sooner and louder.

      It’s also partly why I’m a liberal — I DO want there to be a bare minimum safety net, wherein everyone could have food and a place to sleep even if they do nothing for it.

      But I’m not going to achieve that by giving to a longtime panhandler. So, because I don’t believe that there are enough services for every single kind of problem that lands someone on the street (although truth is that MOST homeless families don’t panhandle, eh? and neither do most single, homeless, jobless adults) I donate to charities that do this professionally. They ask the questions, aim people toward services (even if it isn’t until the 27th time or never that they listen), and generally do a good job because they know how, rather than throwing change at a problem to feel better about themselves. (Though I surely hope they do feel good about themselves, even as they realize it’s a hellish job.)

      So, uh, I’m with Nate. ;-D

  11. I don’t do it. It’s a long ingrained habit, starting in college at Pitt where I passed panhandlers in the street every day (and sadly, witnessed them stealing from the 7-11 and the Student Union cafeteria). Say no, don’t stop, keep walking, donate time and money instead.

    So, uh…on that note, happy holidays!

    1. I’m having this socratic debate in my head right now:

      Someone on twitter mentioned she saw a guy run up the stairs, then grab a (prop) crutch and panhandle. So does the ruse negate the need? Or is it more evidence of it?

      You know I have major issues with integrity. So I hate to think I’m giving to someone under false pretenses. I probably am a lot of the time.

      1. as i said above, i don’t live in NYC or even in a “real city” any longer, so i recognize that i am sheltered to an extent from the day-to-day overwhelm of it all.

        when i did live in a big city, though, in order to be cool with my own decision to acknowledge and to – often, not always – give, i had to work out my own role in the exchange. in our culture, the narrative of “the deserving poor” carries a lot of weight. and when it comes to homelessness and panhandling, it invites those of us being asked to stand in judgement of whether someone is deserving enough.

        except in the case of a few neighbourhood regulars, i realized, i’m never going to really KNOW whether a person is deserving. i’m never going to really know how they got there or what keeps them going or whether the money goes mostly to drugs or to support their dear little grandmother or whatever. more likely the former, sure. but all i know is that they are there, and asking for my spare change. in this culture, i am constantly inundated with pitches from corporate entities asking me to engage in commercial relations with them: to me begging is a far more human enterprise. but it makes us uncomfortable b/c the narrative of the deserving poor makes us think we have to look someone in the eyes and judge. and so we don’t look. we get used to judging before we even see.

        i decided i couldn’t judge based on whether THEY were deserving. to me, any person deserves to be acknowledged, treated as human. to me, it makes ME less when i do not extend that. so, so long as they are not aggressive, i try to acknowledge them. and like i said above, if they’re creative, i especially try to give…not as a judgement of their worth as a person, but of their pitch, of the *work* they put into this act of trying to engage me and my money.

        //end soapbox. and let me say clearly i don’t know if i’d hold this same (probably naive) position if i lived in NYC.

        1. I think you just summed up so much of what I’ve been thinking Bon (Damn, you always do that!). I just stopped asking myself whether that guy on the street corner was the right kind of deserving. My only thought process was, I have a dollar in my pocket and he’s asking for a dollar.

  12. I’m with Nate on this one. The platform folks, as I understand it, have a busking agreement with the city. The ones on the train are breaking the law.
    I once gave a $20 to a guy outside the stores. He didnt have any shoes on, and it was a cold wet day.

  13. Living in a suburb, with so much of our lives spent in the car, the type of panhandling we see is at the top or bottom of freeway exit ramps. People of various ages, holding signs, downcast, waiting for someone’s window to open.

    I will admit to driving by more often than not, same eye contact avoidance, but inside trying to decide what I should do. I occasionally keep a bottle of water in the car for when I happen on someone. I don’t do that nearly enough.

    In my opinion, we are all called to do something – even a simple *clink* as you go by on the subway.

  14. I just realised that actually here in London there aren’t many panhandlers at all. There are plenty of musicians in tube stations but most other ‘panhandling’ is homeless people selling a magazine called Big Issue – they get half of the money for each issue and I should buy one more often than I do…

  15. I always have snacks on hand for my kids, and when I see someone at a street corner, I’ll usually give them a snack, because that could, g-d forbid, be my kid one day. But I never give money. I know that once I hand money over, it’s none of my damn business what they do with it, but still. I’d rather give them the food and know that at least, for the moment, they won’t be hungry.

  16. I agree with Nate. Panhandlers do have access to many programs that can help them and they should take advantage of them instead of people on the subway with loose change. But I also agree with the other comments about giving them acknowledgment. Panhandlers or not, they are still human beings. To pretend they aren’t there makes me feel rude.

  17. For me, it depends on the day, the situation, the weather, whether or not they have a child or a dog with them–and probably my mood. Cynical or optimistic. Fortunate and blessed or grumpy and put-out.

    But we were stopped at a light on Thanksgiving Day and a man was standing on the side of the road asking for money. We rolled down the window and gave him some cash. My oldest asked who he was and if we knew him. We said no, we just thought it was important to give to people when you can. That it feels good to sometimes do something just to be nice–whatever that means at the time. $2, eye-contact, a smile, holding the door, offering to shovel a walk…We never feel bad or regret doing something nice for someone else. No matter what happens after we’ve left the scene.

  18. My dad was a real “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of guy, so you can imagine how he felt (and spoke) about the homeless and panhandling. We were always told to ignore them, that giving them money only encouraged them and kept them from finding a job. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time with him, going to the market and such, because he was teaching me how to drive. At one store, there was a man outside, begging for money. I averted my eyes, and prepared for the inevitable speech from my dad about begging and dignity and what have you, when the man called my father by name. We stopped, my dad chatted with him for a few minutes, and then handed him what looked like a $20. Once we got inside, I asked my dad who that was and why he gave him money, and he said he was a friend he’d been in Vietnam with, and that if he was begging it was because he had no other options. From that moment on, he always gave money to the panhandlers we came across.

    I try to give what I can, when I can: a few bucks, some food, a smile and conversation. I always go back to that day in my head, and remember that the vast majority of people who live on the street and ask for money would probably give anything to NOT be where they are. Everyone of them is someone to someone, and I think about how I would feel knowing it was my dad out there, and people were averting their eyes as they hurried passed him. I also choose not to acknowledge that I’m a big sucker, helps that way.

  19. I like to tell myself, in these situations, that eh, regardless of what said person is doing with the money, at least I did what I thought was the right thing, at the right time, you know?

    That said, I do try to avoid making eye contact. Sad but true.

  20. I learned the biggest lesson of my life in Sarajevo when I saw our friends giving money to the Romas who were just as displaced as the Muslems after the war. As I watched our friends, who had no money to spare, give coins to each Roma they passed, I realized how important it is to give without judgement. No one can remain invisible if we acknowledge his or her humanity. You done good, girlfriend.

    1. I notice that on the street here, too. It’s never the Wall Street guys giving out money. It’s always the secretaries, the domestics, the people coming off night shifts at 7AM.

      Thanks for that reminder, Mom.

  21. I give to anyone that plays an instrument, sings a song, does a little something to entertain and make things more enjoyable. As far as I’m concerned that is their work and I’m happy to pay for it. Someone that’s just sitting there with a sign, sometimes I give, usually I don’t.

  22. What’s worse: to be suckered out of a dollar or two by a con, or to walk right past a hungry homeless person, warily clutching the cash you’ll later spend on a latte you don’t actually need?

    I’ll admit I don’t always give money to people I see on the street — sometimes I don’t feel comfortable doing so for whatever reason– but I have given at times, and I don’t feel like a sucker, and I don’t feel bad about it.

    (Sure there are shelters and charities to help homeless people, but if you have no money, no phone, no internet access and no car, how exactly are you supposed to find a shelter and get to one unless a volunteer happens to find you and bring you in? And what if once you get there you don’t feel safe there? What if once you get there you’re made uncomfortable by someone pushing religion on you? What if the reason you’re homeless in the first place is because you’re mentally ill and you don’t get along well following other people’s rules? Shelters aren’t the only answer. And I feel like when people say “just donate and let the shelter take care of it” they’re (literally) passing the buck — assuming they even actually follow through on the donating to a shelter part of that plan. My homeless neighbors aren’t Somebody Else’s Problem. They’re members of my community and if my community is failing them in some way then in some way I probably am, too.)

    1. I think Nate brings up a good point about the legality on the subway per se. But I’m with you on all this. I don’t think that most of the time, the alternative to panhandling is getting a job. I think it’s probably stealing. Or starving. Or something else pretty bad.

      God, you’re good people Jaelithe. Thanks so much for this perspective. Spoken like a true Momocrat 🙂

  23. Everyone’s post has some truth in it. We’ve all felt all of this. Me too. Here’s how I’ve learned to handle it……..I ride the subways all the time and walk in Central Park all the time.

    I have created an annual budget for this kind of “philanthropy” and keep a running total in my head. I happen to like street musicians and tend to be generous with them. I tend to have a soft spot for military guys/women and tend to be generous to them. I actually like the Mariachi Band guys who roam the subways and am good for a $5 with them. I HATE anyone who has a vibe that makes me uncomfortable, look them dead in the eye and give them nothing.

    And, by the way, if someone is this much in need and uses what I give him for a bottle of scotch or an appropriate drug…..Merry Christmas to him. Were we all on the street like that, surely we’d want something to numb the pain.

  24. When I first moved to the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, I gave money all the time. Then I would notice those same kids smoking and drinking in the park later and slowly stopped giving them my hard earned waitress tips. It was the hardest coming home from the grocery store. How can I say no when I just bought myself organic almond butter? So one say I walked slowly, with an extra bag of apples and offered them to everyone who asked for money.

    No one took an apple and I went home and cried.

  25. I use to judge the homeless when I lived in SoCal. It was so easy an excuse to not give. Now I try to give whenever I can. I try not to worry about what they may waste my 1 on. We have that luxury everyday. I waste 5 a morning on a latte. Who am I to judge what someone down on their luck might buy. And I want my kids to see what charity is. And to show them that even those society throw away and forget are real people too.

  26. I spent a couple hours ringing the Salvation Army bell this season and was surprised to learn I had a very, very hard time getting past my own judgments — about givers, not receivers. I was happy to be out there despite the cold, smiling and ringing, but all the while the buzz in my brain was swiftly processing every person who walked by me. Who smiled at me, who avoided eye contact, who dropped change into the vending machine behind me instead of into the kettle, who made a point to tell me “I write a check instead,” who gave on their way into the store AND on their way out… Over and over I was making these snap judgments based on someone’s shoes, or expression, or bundle of groceries. Then I thought about how my family, at that very moment, was in such a tight spot financially I was washing our clothes in the kitchen sink because the washer was busted, the landlord wouldn’t fix it and we couldn’t even afford change for the laundromat. I thought about my shoes and my expression and my nice jacket and how on that day I would have to walk by that kettle and give nothing, even though it would make me feel ashamed.

    It makes me wonder what those panhandlers think of us, not just what they think of the suits but the regular joes who rush by holding their coffee cups, the moms with two kids in tow, the other panhandlers. If we could all get past our judgments (and setting aside legal issues), it’s just one person having and one person needing, right? It’s absolutely impossible to judge someone’s need, because none of us sees behind the scenes of a stranger’s life. And answering when someone tells you “I need this” is sometimes as hard as admitting “I have this to give.”

    1. Wow, that’s a fascinating perspective Robyn. Thanks for sharing something so personal with such amazing insight and eloquence.

  27. Here’s another analogy (in my support Nate with more analogies compendium):

    Adopting children from [insert very poor country currently sending children to this country]. Initially these things start out as helpful — there are some orphaned and very needy children whose prospects are very dire and they virtually “win a lottery” to come to this country for adoption.

    But repeatedly, what has quickly happened is that children become seen as valuable exports, commodities and all sorts of fraud and corruption ensue. What was a generous, best of intentions impulse has turned into a driver of a new problem. Instead of orphaned children, women end up selling children, often under false pretenses (being told the child is just going to the other country for school, for instance), or being given prenatal shelter and care and then told their baby now belongs to the agency that provided them that care. Abuse like this has happened over and over again — in Guatemala, in various Asian countries, in Africa, now too.

    And again, the intentions of the adoptive families are very good, they only want a child to love and care for. But the consequences of their actions multiplied ends up causing a worse situation.

    I very much admired Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Offers to adopt orphaned children flooded in and their government said, no, we’ll take care of our own children. They welcomed any charitable contributions, but they didn’t let children be taken away from extended families, their culture, etc.

    Ohhh, boy, how’s that for adding to the controversy element?

    1. All I can respond to this is that…it’s complicated. I think there are cases in which ends justify means. And I think sometimes we can do individual deeds of good despite systemic abuses.

  28. Great post! Keep clink clinking when you can. I mostly always give to panhandlers when I have it and I mostly always talk to the person. Not because of how it makes ME feel but because I believe in sharing. I was feeling faint a few weeks ago on a street corner by a church in NYC. I must have looked ashen because a gentleman stopped to ask if he could help or get me some water. I thanked him profusely as a cab came and I got in. I often walk by this church and one evening, I saw the man sleeping in a door alcove. The next time I went by he was awake and I got to thank him for his kindness… And give him some money for dinner; or whatever… And I have also taken to making eye contact with a smile on the subway or bus. That does make me feel good…

  29. Funny this discussion came today, when a good friend of mine just posted this. I hope it’s ok to do this, but it addresses this discussion perfectly. Eye contact, a smile, a conversation – you never know where it will lead, “deserving” or not.

    Here is a link to what my friend, Gunnar wrote about a conversation he struck up with one of “those people.”

  30. I have a weak heart for panhandlers especially if their predicament looks “authentic.” I do not know if it is good or not but my conscience really bugs me if I go around ignoring them so I always end up giving them a few bucks. But there are really panhandlers who are annoying because they are even stronger than me but they do not have the guts to work and earn their own money.

  31. I usually give, probably out of guilt.

    One of the lasting impressions I had from coming to NYC for the first time last year was that the panhandlers ALL looked like actors playing panhandlers. It was the strangest thing .. like, I was used to all the SYDNEY panhandlers but the New York ones looked so exotic and different, I seemed to really see their human-ness more. I wrote about giving one a jam-packed BlogHer swag bag and his gratitude made me feel dreadful.

    I especially always give if I think they are junkies, because they’re not out selling their bodies or thieving. More people just need to give for the sake of giving and not question it too much. If it’s done with true motives, it doesn’t matter about the outcome.

  32. Right after #3 was born, we were in the park and #2-who was 2- was riding his tricycle. In my sleep-deprived haze, I didn’t realize he had gotten out of my sight. When I did, I got a little panicky, left the baby in the stroller with my sister-in-law, and started running towards the other side of the small park to find him. I saw him riding back over a footbridge with a homeless man, who kindly explained that #2 was heading over the bridge and into the street, so he crossed the street to stop him.

    That opened my eyes.

    I’m not saying I’m better at giving-I will always feel like I fall short in that department. But I’m better at realizing humanity, and at being grateful for people I underestimate and obviously shouldn’t. And I say a prayer for that man every time I’m at that park.

    So I say it’s kindness, and being human.

  33. When I first moved to NYC, I gave to panhandlers here and there, but always kind of sheepishly, like I knew everyone around me thought I was a knob. Then I stopped. I moved out of New York a year later, and now in suburbia there aren’t too many. But I follow your rule of thumb: I give if it feels right. And, I, too, am just so grateful to be where I am and now where I was.

  34. I’ve always given something. Even if it’s just a smile and a hello. Just what I was taught. Then again not everyone had an uncle who was a bum.

    I will say, I don’t see it as often now. Mostly because I live in the suburbs. So when I do see someone, I tend to give more than I used to when I lived in LA.

  35. I do not give to panhandlers. Nope sorry, I don’t. Not since seeing a little piece about a maffia -like organisation who used the profit of these people for dark purposes. I do however give generously to an organisation which provides shelter and food for the homeless and recently I went to help there to restore an old building which would harbor new accomodation.

  36. I hardly ever give money to homeless individuals (I do give to charity) partly because I don’t carry cash, but mostly because I see the same ones every day outside my office. I see them so often that I think I stop seeing them at all, if that makes any sense. But then yesterday a homeless man stopped me as I was walking by to tell me I had something on my shoe. I looked down and realized I was dragging a long string of toilet paper behind me–fabulous! I thanked him and kept going, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. So I went to McDonald’s and bought him lunch. “For telling you about your shoe?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. But it wasn’t. It was because he reminded me that he wasn’t just a lump of blanket, he is a real person, and so am I. I felt more human than I have in a long time.

  37. I’m for giving to people in need. How they choose to use that money is beyond my control, so I learned to let that part go. I drink, and I like it. I shouldn’t judge others for doing so. I don’t take money from strangers to fund my glass of wine, but that’s beyond the point.

    I don’t think I’d give money on the subway, though. I’ve met my share of aggressive panhandlers in my time, people who when you give a dollar, they ask why it isn’t five, that sort of thing. I want to have the freedom to walk away easily if a situation turns that direction. Yes, you can just move on the train, but it doesn’t feel as free as being on the street somehow.

  38. I moved to Boston from a small town shortly after Reagan defunded/closed a lot of mental institutions. Once I got over the shock of being accosted by panhandlers and others, I realized that the majority of these guys were Vietnam Vets, mentally ill, or both. I quickly developed that “don’t mess with me” stride that one does in the city, and also the habit of checking out a panhandler’s shoes. I never gave to the kids in the brand new high-tops.

    Now — in 8+ years I’ve never been thrown by the supposedly offensive things people have said or asked about adoption. That “lottery” comment though – damned dehumanizing.

  39. I went to grad school in NYC for two years, while teaching in the Bronx, and everyday I would put a dollar or two in my pocket to give out to someone, either on the street or on the subway. Obviously, I would usually give it all away within 20 minutes of leaving my apartment, and then for the rest of the day wouldn’t be able to give to anyone else. What drove me crazy, though, was how rude and aggressive the subway panhandlers would be when nobody gave them money. A few times, I explained that I’d already given away my cash for the day, and they were still extremely rude. So I began to give much more to the neighborhood local panhandlers around my apartment and avoid the contact with the subway panhandlers.

    Now I live in Indonesia, and it is a whole different experience. There are beggars at every stoplight, and a lot of them are children. They come right up to the car windows and look inside while begging, and it is hard to explain to my kids why they are there and why I don’t give them money. But the truth is that there are a lot of “organizations” that put kids and other people on the streets to beg and bring back money. I don’t like to support that, but sometimes I think, what will happen to them if they don’t bring in enough money today? Or what will happen if they bring in too much? And, in truth, if I gave money to everyone who asked, I would be broke! But how to decide who is more worthy of giving to? Is it the blind man, or the woman carrying the baby, or the dirty 5-year-old?

    I do still give money to the “regulars” that I see around my house, because they are there everyday and I recognize them, but it is really a double-edged sword that I battle with everyday.

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