For a public act, driving my automobile is a surprisingly private thing for me to do. I control my climate, my music, my refreshments. I can make phone calls, hands-free, and speak at the top of my voice with the expectation that only I will hear what’s being said. And while I’m moving, that bubble of privacy is pretty much inviolable.
Other drivers and I can make eye contact if it’s physically possible and we both choose, otherwise not. But, like it or not, I have to stop at intersections. And when I do, all bets are off. The intersection is the realm of the beggar with the cardboard sign and the young man with the squeegee. Their missions fail if they cannot breach my bubble and engage with me. So that’s what they try to do.
For a long time, their importunities never failed to annoy me. My explanation for this instinctive reaction was that these efforts to seize my attention and invade my space were bad manners. I just wanted to be freaking left ALONE. No supplicant ever got a penny out of me, as a penalty for his or her discourtesy in asking for a penny. And then, one day, my reaction became unsustainable.
I was filling up at a gas station, regarding myself as still within the bubble. A vagrant came up to me with a handout request, and I’m sorry to say I snapped at him. He snapped back. I cannot remember precisely what either of us said, but I do know that he said he was desperate and what else did I expect him to do? He didn’t get anything from me; I came away with as many pennies as I started with in my purse. But as I reargued it in my head, I could see the man had a point.
Now, obviously I had previously been over his point before in my head and in discussions with others. My response had always been that I made financial contributions to organizations that supported the welfare of the hungry and the homeless, and that if the man were in need, he should go to them, and leave me out of it. But on reflection this argument no longer measured up to the concrete situation before me.
There are hoops the poor must jump through to access the charities and the government agencies that see to them, and I’m not just speaking of stereotyped heartless bureaucracies, though there are some of those in the mix, too. There may be multiple buses a client has to take to get to the shelter; there are usually guaranteed to be long wait periods for inpatient drug treatment and Section 8 vouchers; food pantries are not open round the clock; free clinics may require appointments.
One must therefore be organized, foresightful and coherent to access these things. And I’ve been taught since that time that homelessness can make unmanageable the routines upon which a coherent life depends. In short, the odds were pretty good that the man shouting back at me actually did need help that none of the charities I donated to could provide as quickly as he needed it – if at all. Even if my money would go to buy a narcotic fix that would keep him from being in torment, he was most likely in urgent need. And there I was shouting at him.
And even if the need isn’t urgent, it’s probably real enough. Again, consider squeegee men. What are the odds that they undertake their risky, low-margin work without need of some kind driving them?
If I conceded the need was real, then, what of my feeling that there must be more appropriate times and places to ask for help with them?
Well, then I had to identify where those more appropriate places would have been. No one would have accosted me in my office or my bedroom or my gym; all of these places had locks on the door or guardians at the gate, and no one seeking a handout would ever reach me there. The only place my life and theirs would likely intersect was at the intersection. For me to say that I could not be solicited there was tantamount to forbidding any solicitation at all, even by those in urgent need.
I concluded that my former stance was untenable.
Since then, public discussion has raised at least two safety issues.
First, in Baltimore, where I live, there has been much concern raised by a recent instance in which a curbside beggar was a stalking horse for a mugger who stabbed and killed a would-be donor. In the wake of that incident, more than one person I’ve chatted with has cited it as a reason never to make donations out the car window.
To which my response is: It’s already established that you’re a risk-taker; you’re behind the wheel. Well, your odds of perishing in a traffic accident are 1 in 77. Your odds of dying by assault with a sharp object are a paltry 1 in 17,625. And so far as I know, no one else in Baltimore has been mugged while donating to a panhandler. There simply isn’t much increased peril involved.
Second, a former public official pointed out in a letter to the editor that panhandling on the street is made illegal for the safety of the very persons doing the soliciting. And there’s no denying it’s not safe for them. But which of us doesn’t take health risks to satisfy immediate needs? (Smokers and jaywalkers, raise your hands!) And from what I can see, we have a lot of people with basic immediate needs out there. Perhaps no one enforces the law out of respect for poor people’s management of their own risks.
Back in the days when I didn’t let people breach my bubble, I also agonized over whether I should be subsidizing those who sought beggary over more productive ways of earning their daily bread. Effectively, I was employing a nineteenth-century distinction (referenced, for instance, in “My Fair Lady”) between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. Again, I doubt that the distinction has much bearing when we’re talking about curbside solicitation; it’s such a hard way to raise money most lazy people would eschew it. But assume there are lazy beggars.
Since there’s no way to administer an immediate field test of deservingness, a donor must trust. But it’s a no-brainer. A dollar or two through the driver’s window isn’t realistically enough to persuade someone to stay out of the workforce; most likely it only helps stave off some hunger pangs or dull a narcotic craving, or maybe helps someone find shelter for the night.
Pope Francis says we shouldn’t worry about what the money will be spent for, but “always” to give, and when we do, to look the recipient in the eye and touch their hand. Since I came out from behind my bubble, I’ve tried to follow that guidance. In those little one-minute encounters, there have been many touching moments and much laughter. I can recommend it to anyone. This holiday, don’t stop donating to the charities that help the poor – but also give yourself the gift of shedding that bubble.
This story has been updated to correct an inaccurate calculation as to the odds of dying by assault with a sharp object.
Jack L.B. Gohn is partner emeritus with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.