21 March 2006

Beggars

I have seen beggars in many places. We have a few in Sheffield. They huddle in doorways, often with faithful mongrels on ropes. Their eyes are dulled and sunken. Sometimes they sell "The Big Issue" - a UK homeless magazine intended to help break the begging cycle and lift self-esteem. I usually walk by. It's not a magazine I enjoy reading.

Last Easter, I went with my family to California. We landed in LA at around 17.30, picked up a hire care and headed for Santa Monica where I had pre-booked a Travel Lodge overlooking the famous pier. It was Saturday night and though we were jet lagged, we needed something to eat so made our way to Third Street - Santa Monica's most popular and rather exclusive shopping street. This was California, the land of plenty, many years after Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and what did we see that very first night? American beggars. Some of them with shopping trolleys piled up with collected stuff and clothing. They were there lurking on the sidewalk as wealthy shoppers nipped in and out of "Abercrombie and Fitch". We stayed in Santa Monica/LA for three days and saw many beggars, hobos, down-and-outs - call them what you will - just a couple of miles from Beverley Hills and the coast road to Malibu. An AmericanAsian shopkeeper told me he hated them. They were always stealing stuff. He sounded like a white Australian slagging off the "abos".
And I have seen beggars in Rome, Paris, Atlanta, London, Madrid, Budapest, Glasgow, Copenhagen, Dublin, Durban (South Africa) and lots of other places. What should I make of them? Should I walk on by? If my life had worked out differently, might I have been a beggar? How did they end up in this position? Should I put my hand in my pocket and give them some of my hard-earned money? Would they simply spend it on drugs or booze? Would it ever make a difference?
There's a young beggar who lurks in Sheffield's suburban heaven. You see him outside the all-night Spar shop - lank haired and cold. Once I bought him a sandwich and a couple of cans of beer. He was gobsmacked with delight. I wonder where he slept that night and should I make him a little shelter in my underhouse workshop? In fact I could house an entire gang of beggars down there.
I'm not religious but I admire Jesus for gravitating towards beggars rather than moneylenders and rich officials. I'd be interested to read other bloggers' views on beggars - these shady people from the underworld - a flipside for Rodeo Drive or London's high life - splashed by Mercedes and Jeep drivers - reminding us all that life is fragile and we shouldn't take what we have got for granted.

4 comments:

  1. I had a great-uncle who often ended up begging for sustenance. He came from a hard-working Brit family of coal miners, but he couldn't seem to operate within society's boundaries so he played his guitar for food and beer.

    I have often given what I could to homeless people I met in passing. I remember one man who looked positively frightening, all wild hair, angry eyes, hunched over, soaking wet from walking miles in the rural rain. He took shelter at the post office by the radiator but they shooed him out. His next stop was the public library, again by the radiator. I had seen him pass by a couple of times and this particular day I knew he had to be cold so I popped out of the office, ran to the coffee shop and brought him back a coffee. I was a little scared to approach him because he looked so feral, but I did. Turns out there was one other person in town who always bought him a coffee too. I also remember the librarians looking as if I had committed some sin in acknowledging this man. I know he shouldn't have had coffee in a library, but he wasn't reading, just trying to get warm before moving on.

    Maybe because of growing up seeing my great-uncle and knowing his past, I feel a small kinship to some homeless people. If it hadn't been for my family I might have ended up on the street, too. No one knows what drove them to live that way. All we can do is offer a bit of kindness when we can, and hope that they meet enough kindness in their journeys to sustain them as they exist in their lives.

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  2. There's this southern comedian who does a very short skit about the homeless/beggars. He says something along the lines of: you KNOW the beggars are going to spend it on booze and drugs - do you really think they can get a job when they don't have a home? It's funny when you hear him say it, but then you stop laughing and realize what a good point he makes.

    There's a homeless Veteran who lives in "town". He's been around for as long as I can remember - since my teens, at least. He always has on his fatigues, carries a large military issued duffle bag and proudly displays his medals on his shirt and on his hat. He has gone a little nutty over the years (no disrespect intended, at all) and tends to ramble about nothing that makes any sense, now. But, he's still always appreciative for anything one gives - even if it's just a few pennies. It breaks my heart to see him still begging and walking miles all over town every day, but he's been offered many alternatives over the years and has just chosen that lifestyle. It's interesting, but it still leaves me baffled.

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  3. I don't give out money, but I will often offer to get someone something to eat. We can debate all we like about where the money is going, how it does or doesn't help, etc., but the big problems aren't going to get solved with cash handouts. But how can I argue with hunger? If someone isn't hungry now, that person will be hungry in a few hours. A turkey sandwich will not make a homeless person less homeless, but I feel that if someone tells me s/he's hungry, the neighborly thing to do is to help provide food. My bugaboo is that I often internally berate myself for wanting to do something "good" and yet not being able to solve the problem. Well, I can't do it all by myself, but I can do little things bit by bit. I hope that a little kindness goes a lot further than 25 cents.

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  4. Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today. Teach a man HOW to fish and he can feed himself for the rest of his life." ~~~

    Ok 'O bright One' this ties into this somehow~~~I just forgot where I was going with it~~ so you'll have to figure it out.

    ;)

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