thoughts on begging

I ran into Kwin the other day for the first time in ages as I was walking briskly from Southern Cross Station, eager to get back to my warm living room and my book. She was sitting on a blustery street corner (Bourke and Spenser), colourful artwork displayed in books, few coins dispersed in a hat laid out on the ground. I exclaimed that it seemed like such a cold, windy spot; she answered that sometimes she needed to see the sky and some trees, because you can’t look at concrete buildings forever. We chatted for a while about this and that, while she rolled a cigarette. A man came along and handed her a five dollar note. “Bugger!” she whispered, loudly, after he’d left. “He always catches me when I’m smoking!” I asked her why it mattered, and she said that he used to give her twenty dollars, until he found out she smoked. “Now he only gives me five – he doesn’t want me spending his money on cigarettes. I can see where he’s coming from,” she pondered, “but I don’t like the idea of people giving me money with conditions attached. If you want me to have a night’s accommodation, go down to the local backpackers and buy me a night’s accommodation. If you want me to have food, well buy me a sandwich. But if you give me money, it must be given graciously. Don’t tell me how to spend it.”

I can see where Kwin is coming from. To stipulate how somebody is to spend a gift is paternalistic and somewhat controlling. Rather than build a bridge, it breeds mistrust and further instils the power dynamic between beggar and giver. It is to say, “I give you this money because I pity you, but I don’t trust you to spend it wisely.” What kind of a gift is that? It leaves the giftee grovelling and disempowered and the giver puffed up on self-righteousness. In our momentary experience as welfare-provider, we forget that we are also likely to spend that money on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. ‘Gifts’ attached to the words “do the right thing with it” are underlaid with a false superiority on the part of the giver.

I still hold to a noble idea that money is better utilised in the hands of an organisation like the Salvation Army, where perhaps it can be used to address a problem closer to its root, than in the hands of a beggar, where at best the money represents temporary pain relief. When a woman armed with a convincing sob story and a request for some loose change confronts me on the street, however, I find it difficult to hold to my conviction. Slightly frazzled and feeling compromised either way, I usually hand over a few coins. My housemates, who have lived in the CBD and thought about this issue longer, seem more intentional when faced with the same situation. They see it as an opportunity to build relationships with people who are very marginalised: Gemma often invites people to lunch and at the very least will ask them their name; Dave only gives money to people he knows. I like this form of giving – the kind that strengthens our social fabric through relationships, rather than the kind that hopes for a salad roll, but actually just keeps people in their place.