One of the more bothersome aspects of living, working, or playing in NYC is the daily implorations for change from the City’s countless have-nots. It’s uncomfortable and heartbreaking to see another human being so broken that they are reduced to living outside and begging from strangers. To deal with the nagging shame this presents, some people have developed a mental coping mechanism that is more irritating than the fraught pleas for charity. By making the assumption that all beggars are addicts of some sort, they do the “right” thing by not giving money — lest they feed the habit. Others feel that by answering a request for cash with an unsolicited hot dog or piece of pizza, they have done some incredible kindness. I’m here to tell you that not only are your actions morally neutered, but also annoying as shit.
On a recent night of drunken debauchery, I was approached by a man in need of a few bucks. He was apparently down on his luck, and had begun to weave his desperate tale of woe when he was abruptly interrupted by the dollar that I offered with a silent nod.
I was in front of a bar with some interesting new acquaintances, a few of them of the much fairer sex. I was mid conversation, in top form, entertaining them with some of my finest jokes and anecdotes. I thought a quick flash of the cash would shoo the dark cloud away from our sunny circle. It worked briefly, but only long enough for a storm of self-righteous indignation to blow in.
For as soon as our gloomy friend walked off in search of more generous strangers, one of the previously cheery members of our happy little group twisted her face into an unmistakable scold. “You know, he’s just gonna buy drugs with that. You’re not helping. In fact, you may have set his recovery back by enabling his habit,” she said fuming with pseudo paternalistic concern and fury, slurring and staggering slightly in her drunkenness.
“You mean to say that people beg for money to buy drugs and not to feed their starving kids or three-legged dog or whatever? Gee whiz, I had no idea,” I replied, as sarcastically as humanly possible.
Without even the slightest smirk at my incredible wit, our new AA sponsor angrily gathered her friends (unfortunately even the one who seemed kind of into me) and sloppily fled the scene. Once again my need to be snarky resulted in another lonely night. But that’s neither here nor there.
What stuck with me from that evening is the unbelievable superiority the housed and employed feel over the beggars and homeless. Somehow because we don’t sleep outside or ask for change, we think we know what’s best for those that do. Even having never been forced to sleep in public, eat from the trash, or any of the countless degradations and humiliations the homeless face daily, we somehow know what they need. Or more specifically, what they don’t need.
Another example of this remarkable condescension is when a request for money is met with an offer of food. “I don’t give money, I give food,” is the refrain of the entitled, arrogant bastard. It’s usually said loudly with a smugness that deserves a jab with a dirty needle.
It’s a familiar scene, especially in NYC. Some disheveled wretch saunters along looking for change. Some douchebag hears the pleas and says, “you want something to eat? I’ll get you something but I don’t do cash.” His tone is patronizing and his volume sufficiently elevated for everyone nearby to hear what a great guy he is. What he thinks he’s saying to the world is, “I’m a guy who cares. This person doesn’t know what he needs. Luckily I do.” What I hear is, “I’m a presumptuous, annoying prick. Look at me!”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeding a needy stranger. Sharing food is among the most basic kindnesses one human can offer another. But, meeting an appeal for a specific act of kindness with something completely different is just rude. Imagine if you asked someone for directions to McDonald’s and they instead handed you a carrot because that’s “what you need.” You’d be rightly offended by the pompous asshole. Don’t the most destitute in both material possessions and human dignity deserve the same basic respect you expect?
Another nauseating aspect of the noble food buyer’s actions is the palpable “gotcha” subtext. He tries to assuage the guilt of society’s rampant inequality by saying, “see, this guy’s not really desperate, he just wants to get high.” The thing is, that’s probably true. There are few people in the US who are starving to death (although many suffer from malnutrition and hunger). A significant portion of the country’s homeless suffer from chemical dependency (mostly alcoholism). None of these facts lessen the suffering of those living on the street. Rubbing someone’s face in their problem is neither helpful nor decent.
It’s understandable if you are unwilling to subsidize an addiction. I very rarely give my money to those who beg for it, homeless or not. But if you decide to be charitable, do so on the terms of the person in need. Give people what they ask for or don’t give at all. Understand that you are incapable of knowing the problems, constraints and needs of others, and it’s wildly stupid and disrespectful to assume you do. Besides, you know what’s more comforting than hot soup and a blanket when you sleep outside? Heroin.