As I've grown older I give mindfully and more often, leading with my heart rather than the judgmental mind, knowing that it's a 50/50 proposition whether the person I encounter has a genuine or legitimate need. That being said, I understand why people are hesitant to give.
We've all seen the soggy side of a cardboard sign with the scrawled message that reads,” Hungry and Homeless, Anything Helps,” or "Kindness is Karma, please help!" There's even a phrase for it, “Flying a sign.” The message is often creative, poignant, heart-rending, inspirational, and sometimes downright funny enough to part you from your money. It is done quickly, silently and without transgressing any local statutes against agressive
panhandling. The intent is to make us feel guilty and uncomfortable, reminding us,“ But for the grace of God go I.”
When Cecile and I were in SF recently, we came across two such people. The first one was a young woman and her well groomed cat that was entertaining pedestrians by doing a downward facing cat yoga pose—on the fly, balancing itself on it's owner's head and shoulder. Since we were both walking briskly in opposite directions, I hadn’t noticed she was clutching a tightly rolled-up wad of cash in her left hand until after I saw the photo.
The other was a strung out crack addict with all her front teeth missing sitting in the doorway of an abandoned buildling with an innocent dog sleeping on her nap. I didn’t take her photo as it seemed too exploitive, but this one pulled on our heartstrings so we gave her some cash.
For some people who encounter this situation it creates sympathy for the homeless and for others a total lack of empathy. The ACLU has advocated for the rights of sign-flyers across the country. Their argument is that “we the public,” can choose to give to the beggars and pandhandlers or not. On a good day they can make a daily wage of $30-$40 a day, not exactly a windfall, but enough to get by.
But windfalls are possible. A few years ago a reporter for the New York Post wrote about a guy in the second photo who called himself Noah (aka Joseph Ramos, 64 at the time)—because he set up a miniature Noah’s Ark on the upper East Side of NYC to draw in patrons. He invited them to take photos. He had two cats, two dogs, and three guinea pigs and was raking in $40-$50 an hour. Yes, an hour—this is no typo! After having been addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine for 16 years, he claimed to have found God. ASPCA spokesmen said agents invesitgating complaints by some passersbye found no evidence of cruelty or abuse and after inspecting the pets, deemed them to be healthy.
Most panhandlers or beggars like Noah clearly have issues: a history of drugs and alcohol abuse and/or mental illness. Some are just scam artists who don’t want to work a 9 to 5 job.
You can’t always tell who is trully needy, so what does one do?
Last February Pope Francis was asked by a reporter for the Catholic News Service if giving money to beggars was proper since they may spend it on alcohol or drugs. His response was that we should ask ourselves what we “do on the sly?” What happiness do we “seek in secret.” The Holy Father added: “giving to someone in need, “is always right,” and should be done with respect and compassion. In the end, everyone must work out this moral dilemma for themselves.
1-Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service, February 28, 2017
2-NY Post Metro section by Kate Briquelet June 10, 2012