GIVING TO BEGGARS serves a purpose for the giver as well as the recipient. It shares something tangible (food, money, a material item) with someone (a person) or something (an agency or institution). The gift allows the recipient to eat, purchase or enjoy something. The symbolic message is one of generosity ("I have enough for myself, I want to share with you") or concern ("You are without food, let's make sure you are fed"). The messages are humanizing; they recognize the similarities between self and others.
Not giving, on the other hand, highlights the differences between those who are asking and those who are unable or unwilling to give. (Or it may be because the person not giving is broke, too.)
Not giving may be based on disapproval: "This fellow doesn't look handicapped, . . . may use the money for drugs or alcohol. . . . It only encourages them to keep asking. . . . He isn't really homeless, just trying to make a buck." The symbolic messages separate "legitimate" from opportunistic beggars.
Policy based on feelings
I would argue that this is an artificial distinction. We should not base public policy upon our own feelings about whether a beggar is truly needy or merely annoying. None of us possesses X-ray vision to detect the presence of house keys, drug paraphernalia or wine bottles in a beggar's pockets. Nor can we determine by someone's outward appearance whether he is fit to work.
There is no truth serum for cadgers of spare change. They have a First Amendment right to speak. Such solicitations, according to a federal court in California, not only convey information about the beggar's need for food, clothing, shelter or transportation, but often convey a message about how our society treats its poor, homeless or disenfranchised.
Last year Baltimore sought to bar panhandling as unpleasant and disturbing to tourists and visitors. Judge Frederic Smalkin, reviewing a challenge to the law brought by the ACLU, agreed that while begging and panhandling can be upseting, listeners' reactions to the content of free speech do not alone justify its suppression. He struck down the ordinance because it outlawed only solicitations by the poor, in disharmony with the Constitution's equal-protection guarantee.
The city responded with a new ordinance extending the prohibition to all aggressive solicitors, poor or rich. The law also outlaws peaceful solicitations at ATM machines, bus stops, traffic intersections and parking spaces.
We must not be trapped in our thinking about this matter. The beggar's real or feigned helplessness is not the only issue. Other questions are more complex and more important: Why is our society so unequal? Why are there so many poor people? Are we communicating to our elected officials concerns about the needs of the poor or disabled? What can I, my family, business, church, school, synagogue do to make a difference in the lives of the poor? How would it feel to sleep outside in the cold tonight? How would it feel to have had no breakfast or lunch today?
Only by searching together for the answers can we hope to make positive changes -- for the poor and within ourselves.
Lauren Siegel is a social worker with Health Care for the Homeless.