I have, from time to time been so compelled, moved, and motivated to pass on cash to the occasional beggar. It was during my summer in San Francisco that learned the errors of making eye contact with strangers on the street and of carrying any cash on me when I left the house. Responding to them is something that takes a little getting use too if you’ve had no experience talking to these people. I remember one day, while on my way to work, a younger guy, close to my age, was lounging on a bench and yelled out to me, “You got a dollar?”

“I’m fine thanks.” I replied. I was aware of my error the second I let it out. Trust me when I tell you that beggars don’t appreciate you replying to their begging in the same way you would when responding to a sales associate who approaches you and asks if there is anything they can help you find.

“I the one that’s not fine!” the man said back to me, puffing out his chest, but making no effort to leave the bench. He kept yelling after me as I continued to walk to work, but I ignored what he was saying. I do remember thinking that if I could get a job in the overpriced city of San Francisco, I’m pretty sure he could too. At this point I started laughing. I’m not sure if everyone experiences this, but for me all it took was a summer in San Francisco surrounded a sea of beggars for me to actually utter the phrase, “Get a job hippie.” and mean it. Times they were a changing.

I say beggar because there is a very distinct difference between being homeless and being a beggar. You can have plenty of homeless people that beg, but when it comes to begging for a living, well, it’s a living, one that can enable some of your more proficient beggars an income that exceeds $100,000 a year. My biggest gripe is that I really can’t tell the difference, unless of course you happen to see them changing for work.

It was during my last trip to Vegas a few weeks back where I saw this rear opportunity of seeing a professional beggar out of his natural habitat and in the wild… dressing up, actually dressing down, getting ready for work. It was the last night in town and Angela and I were with friends and on our way to dinner when we stopped at a red traffic light. I notice a little supped up Honda pull past us and a guy jumped out of the front passenger side and walked to the corner. As the light turned green we rolled past the intersection there was the guy who gotten out of the car, holding some cardboard sign about being hungry, or trying to get enough cash to get a bus ticket home to his little kid, or something like that specifically devised to pull at ones heart-strings so they will be more apt to give a dollar.

The thing was he was holding the sign between his legs while he was changing shirts. He had one nice clean shirt that was resting over a guardrail while he was putting on a very nasty looking t-shirt that had a few holes in it. I mean talk about a gutsy fraud. Then again the first group of cars was the one that got to see this rare metamorphosis in progress. All subsequent groups would only see a professional beggar passing as a homeless person in need. It made me a little sad because essentially what you are doing when you give a professional beggar a dollar is tipping a lazy person for being a bad actor.

I’m all for helping the homeless. It’s just a bit of a struggle to figure out who’s homeless and who’s pretending to be homeless. So I donate to local soup kitchens and homeless shelters or offer a few dollars to people who are at those places. I figure that the pretend homeless won’t be going to places that those in need gather at for meals, support, and a nights rest.

If you are of the disposition of giving a beggar some cash, try making it an even exchange. It was something I picked up in San Francisco, and it takes only one word… “Why?” When someone walks up to you and just asks for change and you simply give it to them, it seems a little one sided. So when people would start approaching me, asking for cash, I’d ask them, “Why?” It caught some off guard, but others were professionals and were ready at a moment’s notice.

I’d just sit back and listen to the story of why they needed the money. Some stories took about a minute to get through and were the equivalent to the signs that lazy beggars hold up on street corners. Some stories would last close to fifteen minutes. Once they were done with the story I’d tip them based on the how good I thought the story was. That way I was encouraging and donating to the imagination and storytelling ability of the person instead of just giving them some change with no even exchange on my part. I was much happier to donate to these performers when I started getting, well, a performance.

One of my favorite ones was from an ‘ex-military pilot’ who had been discharged after telling people about a UFO sighting he witnessed and was ordered to keep to himself. He spent a good ten minutes telling me all about the sighting and how he loved to fly his jet. The explained further that he had come to town to meet with his old commander about possibly getting his job back. Things were going well at the meeting until he got a priority call from his expecting wife. She was in labor and told him to get home as soon as possible. He was trying to get bus fare so he could get back to his wife and new baby. It was much more involved than that, but you get the basic idea. I gave him four dollars for that one. It took him about 20 minutes to get through it, and I felt like I was giving him over minimum wage for the time he’d given me. It wasn’t a great story, good but not great, it was quite entertaining though. All in all, it seemed like a rather fair exchange, and I feel a lot better about these donations now.

I do hope that in the event that I come across someone that is truly homeless and I take them for a beggar that they feel sharing a story is a little more like working for the money instead of just begging, and that they appreciate that. All in all, it’s a tricky situation to decipher. I hope some of this helps you the next time you choose to make one of these types of donations. As a general rule of thumb I stick to, if you are donating because you are being guilted into it, keep your money. If you truly want to help or want to tip a stranger for a story they just shared with you, I say go for it.

If you’ve need exposed to them, what are some of the stories beggars have told you?

Image Source:
Google Images, key words: begging, get a job hippie, helping the homeless, and UFO story.