Begging for an answer

>> Thursday, 28 February 2013

What do you tell your children about beggars?

I assume that most people have an attitude much like mine; that giving through registered charities is preferable to giving directly to the man or woman with the begging bowl on the street.  That way we can be fairly sure that the money is put to good use rather than spent on drugs, alcohol, or passed onto some Fagin-type character who controls gangs of unfortunates.  So unless the person with their hand out is offering you a Big Issue (which I guess doesn't really count as 'begging' per se, since you are given something in return), I tend to avoid them.  Walk straight past them.  Essentially, ignore them.

Sounds ugly when you put it like that, doesn't it?

Does to me, anyway.

I remember the first time I saw a beggar - as if it were yesterday.  I was 17, on a school trip to Rome, walking with my friends along a hot and dusty street, dipping in and out of the shade offered by the shop awnings and suddenly, there she was.  A dark-haired child, wearing what looked like vaguely ethnic clothes, messy and unkempt, head down, standing in front of a corner store.

Holding her hand out.

I was shocked.  I came from middle England, from a small town in the Cotwsolds.  Any holidays abroad (and there hadn't been that many in my life until that point) were always controlled by my parents and no doubt they had taken care to avoid such meetings before.  This really was outside my experience.  Surely this couldn't be happening?  Not in Italy?  Italy was part of Europe, surely there weren't beggars in Europe.  (Ah, sweet innocence of youth).  I gave her money - I can't remember how much but since I didn't have a lot myself, it will only have been a few coins - and walked on, wondering how a child ends up in a situation like that.  I wonder now what happened to her.

Let's fast-forward nearly 30 years.  I have a son of nearly the same age as the girl I saw in Rome.  Sadly, he didn't have to wait until he was 17 to see his first beggar; I suspect that he wouldn't be able to tell you when that happened since begging now happens everywhere, even in the middle-London/middle-England we inhabited before moving to Moscow.

And in Moscow, there are definitely beggars.  They wait by the cathedrals, by the church we go to on a Sunday, in supermarket carparks, in the metro.  Unless you remain cocooned in your big 4x4 never looking out of the darkened windows, you can't avoid them.  Most disturbingly, more than 50% of them have young children or babies with them.  How can you turn away from and ignore a young woman pulling a 2 year old by the hand in a wet & windy supermarket carpark, as you cram your week's worth of shopping into the boot of the car?  How can you step over the woman with the baby waiting by the gate outside Mass on a Sunday morning?  What about the elderly lady kneeling and praying by the cathedal, the guy with no legs in the wheelchair waiting by the traffic lights, or the pensioner steering her blind husband through the crush on the metro asking for your help because their state pension isn't enough?

Can you give to all of them?

Of course you can't.  So often, you end up giving to none of them.

As an adult I try to justify this in my head by counting up the hours spent proof-reading and editing documents and brochures for charities, by the money collected and donated to those same organisations, by the awareness I try to spread within the expat community here of the need for their time and money.

But my sons don't see that.  And since they don't come shopping with me, they don't see the apple or banana I hand to the 2 year old outside the supermarket as his mother (if she is his mother) pockets the dollar I just gave her and - more often than not - tells me that's not enough.

I know hand-outs are not the answer.  Give the man (or woman) a fishing rod, not a single fish; that's what we're supposed to do.  Deal with the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms.  But I want to teach my children not to be hard-hearted and turn away from those in need.  Giving to those who require help now, today, to make it through to tomorrow, does not make them a soft touch, a mug, an easy prospect; it simply makes them human.

So.  I would really like to know.  What do you tell your children about beggars?


MsCaroline 28 February 2013 at 12:41  

Growing up in Asia way back when, my earliest memories are full of beggars. I was only 7 when we left Bangkok, and I still remember the beggars at the temples - often horribly disfigured or mutilated - who would thrust their bowls (and often their disfigured limbs) at you as you went by. If anything, I was probably more surprised by the fact that there were - by comparison - hardly any beggars in the US and in Europe.

In dealing with the children,
I always just told them the truth: that some of the people have no money and nowhere to live, and we give money to our church programs and charities that help those people. We don't give money directly to the people because some of them make bad choices with the money, and we can't tell by looking who will make good choices. Years ago, I did a project with Son#1's Sunday School class, where we assembled 'Agape Bags' ('agape' being the biblical Greek word for a sort of brotherly love.) Each plastic bag contained a snack (Granola bar or somesuch,) a card with a local homeless shelter's information and a quarter taped to it, coupons for things like a free hamburger at McDonald's, a water bottle,small toothbrush kits, and a pair of new athletic socks (it turns out the homeless have terrible problems with their feet since they're often out in the rain and/or rarely have a chance to wash.) We kept a supply of these bags in the car, and when we were approached at stoplights, the boys would hand them out. Even when I didn't have assembled bags, I always kept a case of water bottles in the car (in the desert Southwest, water is always welcome.) None of this explains inequity, lack of social safety nets,drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, or any of the myriad reasons that people end up in such sad situations, but a simple and gentle truth is at least a start. It's not pretty, but there it is.

Iota 28 February 2013 at 16:47  

I find this a harder talk than the sex one. The thing I find hard is the "Why didn't you give that man/woman some money, Mum?" The answer - honestly - is "because we're in a hurry, because if I stopped for him/her, I'd have to stop for the dozen others we're going to pass in the course of the next few days, because I'm not sure I've got any change and I feel awkward if I'm rooting round in my purse in the street, because I know I haven't got any change and I don't want to give a £10 note, because I don't think it will honestly help all that much, because I feel really helpless in the face of poverty, because I want you to get used to walking past homeless people and feeling ok with that - otherwise how will you even walk down a city street when you are 18 and have left home and are fending for yourself?, because... because... because..."

It's an issue I feel so conflicted over in my own self, that I don't think I can come up with a consistent message for the children. I hate it when they start saying things like "Why don't you go and buy them a whole bag of shopping?" or (worse) "Why don't you try and help them find somewhere to sleep?"

Iota 28 February 2013 at 16:48  

Good subject for a blog post, by the way.

nappy valley girl 28 February 2013 at 18:32  

It is a good subject. We really don't come across beggars on Long Island, although there are a few homeless people and I have tried to explain about them to the boys. But when I grew up in Hong Kong there were lots of beggars. I remember giving them coins, I think my mother let me do that, but somehow she explained that you couldn't do it every time. I think in the end, children work it out for themselves.

Michelloui | The American Resident 1 March 2013 at 20:24  

Your post summs it up for me, and is more or less what I say to my 15 yo daughter. I explain the frustrations and we talk about how you can't give to everyone and I let her know that I contribute to several charities as my way of helping, but how does that help that person suffering on the corner? Or the one down the street or the one outside the shop... ad infinitum.

And then of course there's the confusing issue of journalists posing as beggars to see how much they can get away with--so how do you know if the beggar is a beggar or someone who figured out a way to make money without working or a journalist doing 'research'? It's a frustrating situation.

Catherine Prescott 2 March 2013 at 17:24  

Fascinating - I don't know what I'll say to my baby when she's old enough. I want her to have compassion and to make human connections to people in need - giving to charity doesn't offer this so directly. But the sheer number of homeless people makes it impossible to stop every time - sometimes you just have to walk by. And some people are frankly scary. I guess I want to teach her to think about it, like we're doing here!

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