To give or not to give? Beggars provoke guilt, ire

ROGER SIMON

July 19, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

He stands outside the Burger King and asks for change.

Some people give and some don't.

"Did he bother you?" the Burger King manager will sometimes ask when you enter. "He's not supposed to bother you."

We don't admit that the guy bothers us, though he does. All panhandlers bother us because they force us to recognize that they exist.

Poor people, like other people, come in all varieties. Some are just down on their luck and would go out and earn a living if they could.

Others are bums. (There are rich bums, too. But they are called heirs and heiresses.)

It is not politically correct to call anyone a bum anymore, however. Or to say that some people are just lazy. And that they beg on street corners because it is easier than working.

And, perhaps, it makes no difference. Maybe needy is needy and we should not differentiate.

When I used to give change to people, I also used to give them advice like: "Use this to get yourself something to eat."

But then, out of liberal guilt, I stopped doing that.

Who am I to tell them not to drink, when I drink? I asked myself. Don't the poor have a right to get blasted, too?

Now, I have stopped dispensing both advice and change. That's because most social service people I know say it is a bad idea.

They say handing out money just feeds panhandlers' drug and drinking habits.

In Washington, D.C., where they have passed a new anti-panhandling law, social service agencies have come up with a leaflet titled: "Your Nickels and Dimes Don't Add Up to Change."

"The help they need cannot be bought with spare change," Gunther Stern, director of the Georgetown Ministry Center, said of panhandlers. "It must be delivered by professionals. However, as long as there is a steady stream of change, as meager though it may be, there is no incentive for these human beings to find permanent solutions."

The city of Berkeley, Calif., has come up with a creative idea to help such people: It uses a voucher system.

You can buy vouchers that can be cashed in at fast-food joints, on buses, etc.

And when somebody comes up to you and asks for spare change, you just hand him a voucher.

This sounded so sensible to me that I tried a version of it on the Burger King guy.

I'll get you a Whopper instead, I told him the last time he asked me for money.

"Rather have change," he said.

I'll get you a Whopper, I told him.

" 'N' a Coke," he said.

So I went inside and got him a Whopper and a Coke. And when I went out and handed him the bag, he opened it and took out the Whopper and peeled away the bread.

"Hey!" he said. "There's no cheese!"

I got unreasonably angry at this. Didn't this jerk know I was doing a good deed? Why wasn't he grateful?

"No cheese!" he repeated, holding the sandwich out to me as if I were going to take it back inside and get cheese added to it.

I didn't get cheese for me! I said. Why should you get cheese?

"Because I like cheese!" he shouted back.

I stalked away from him feeling guilty and stupid.

Two blocks down the street, there is a guy who sits on the sidewalk with a sign that says: "Vietnam Vet with AIDS." I used to give him money even though I didn't know if really was a vet or had any disease. This day I just walked by him.

And for the rest of the day, I couldn't stop arguing with myself over the Burger King incident:

Maybe I should have gone back and gotten the guy a slice of cheese. But he could have been more polite.

Yeah, right, but maybe he never went to charm school. And you make enough money to buy him a pound a cheese a day and not notice it.

You shouldn't give these people anything! It just feeds their drug habits!

So what did you think he was going to do? Take the cheese and trade it in for crack?

I have not seen the Burger King guy again. If I do, I don't know if I will give him change or just look away.

I know that looking away is easier.

It is always easier to pretend that problems, even when they are people, just don't exist.

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