A Lesson in Charity

Helping the homeless photo by Ed Yourdon

{image credit via}

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Recently, I was at a take away cafe a buying a drink when I was witness to a very awkward exchange.

A lady walking by the cafe stopped to ask the young female customer, who had just placed her order, for spare change. The young woman apologetically replied saying she didn’t have any to spare.

I had just walked in and expected to be met with the same request. Instead the lady began at tirade of abuse at the young woman. It included words about, “she in her skinny jeans with her upper-class attitude, thinking she was better than anyone else.” The bitter words spewed forth for about three minutes. All the while, the young woman did her utmost to ignore the abuse.

All sorts of thoughts flew through my mind. I was uncomfortable. I was embarrassed for the young woman. I was a little shocked at the tirade. Also, thinking I might be next in the firing line, I asked myself what was I going to do? I checked my wallet.

Yes, I had spare change. However, I normally don’t give money to people who beg. I never know if they have a legitimate need and I’ve been “had” before. I suppose you could say they probably do have a need if they’ve been reduced to begging. Am I just perpetuating their neediness if I support their begging? And what will they spend the money on? Or should charity be unconditional? Somehow, I think it needs to be conditional if I am to be an astute steward of my money and other resources. So, isn’t there a better way to obtain financial assistance aside from begging? But I’ve never been down and out before. Maybe it’s not that easy. I really don’t know how “the system” works. I like to think I am concerned about social justice, but I’m not an activist. In reality, I am truly quite clueless and can only go with my gut.

As my thoughts swirled around, her verbal abuse continued in the background, and any sense of charity I had was being quickly whittled away.

This time I was on my own. However, the thought occurred to me; what would I do if my daughter had been there with me, as a co-witness? What would I have said, when she most definitely would have asked me, in front of the lady, what was happening? I want to teach her to be generous and charitable. But what’s the best way to teach and role model these and other related values?

So far, the main way I can think of doing so is by supporting legitimate organisations and causes like World Vision child sponsorship or the Christmas Wishing Trees, for example. I definitely don’t want her to learn that you can you get what you want by abusing or bullying people.

What would you have done? How would you teach the lesson?

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24 thoughts on “A Lesson in Charity

  1. For me, charity is unconditional. I know there are a lot of people on the streets due to MH issues and who am I to judge whether or not they really ‘need’ the spare change.

    Having said that, I live in a small country town now and rarely have anyone approach me.

    Subsequently I choose to make my own charitable donations in ‘quiet’ ways. I think they’re the best kind. The ones where there is no public recognition.

    I honestly don’t know what I would have done in your situation. But I feel sorry for the young woman at the pointy end of that tirade.

    • Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate your perspective. I suspect if we dig deep into the issue of poverty and homelessness, it will be like opening a can of worms; very complex social, human and policy issues. I can barely imagine. As to giving, I do fully agree quiet ways are the best too.

  2. This reminds me of one day long ago when I was on the streets with my friend in Japan. We saw an old lady and she came up to ask me for change. I just gave it to her, although I had seen her before and gave her the change. My friend had seen her before too and asked, why I did so. He said she probably will use it for drugs haha.. very unlikely looking at that old lady, but I see his point of being wary of getting “smoked”.

    To me, it is just small change, but to her, it might really mean something. And I like to think in a more positive way. However, if she behaved like the beggar you met who verbally abused the young lady, I would not have given her the change because you are right, you cannot expect to get help because of who you are, or the state you are in. Nobody owes you a living. If somebody else helps you, it is by the goodness of their hearts. It is not your right.

    Ai @ Sakura Haruka

    • Thanks for sharing your story. I take your point. It might really make a difference to that person, small gesture or not. We will never know. I guess it could be seen as an investment in humanity, sending positive energy into the world, who knows. Thanks for making me think about that a little more. You do like to look at the positive, don’t you! That’s great.

      I think I agree with you. After seeing that lady’s behaviour, it occurred to me she was behaving as if it was her right to be given the money, and I don’t believe it is.

  3. It sounds jaw dropping , I wouldn’t have given her the money after the abuse. The staff should have intervened and offered to call the police? I am like you I give to WV and other aid agencies instead. I can’t imagine what it is like to be homeless or destitute but there are lots of organizations that exist to help them , they can still access pensions too.

    • I wondered about the staff, Trish. The cafe is a very small outlet and only had one young woman serving at the time. It’s also located on a main road with a lot of people traffic and it is not uncommon to have some come past begging for money. I can imagine the staff themselves get intimidated from time to time.

  4. On our way to the swimming pool from the car park, there’s always a guy who begs for money. I’ve given him some a couple of times. Then, I’ve been around right after someone had refused him and heard him mumble some obscenities under his breath. I was a little intimidated by it, even if the abuse wasn’t directed at me.

    I wouldn’t know what to do if I was that young woman. It isn’t fair that she’s verbally abused that way. But I think in situations like this, you sometimes need to consider mental illness as well. A lot of these people who are homeless and destitute are also dealing with mental issues.

    Still. I have no answer.

    • Ai’s comment made me think a bit more about giving because of the difference it might make to the person receiving it, whether we know it or not. A small act of kindness could make a world of difference. But the other point she made was that those who ask for handouts should not expect them necessarily as their right. That thought passed through my mind when the lady walked away. Her abuse made it seem as if she expected to be given spare change. I can’t agree with that. But you’re right, Grace, mental illness does cloud and complicate a lot of things. Unless we are experts, when faced with these situations, I suppose we can only do the best we can at that moment in time.

  5. This is a really tricky one. So many different reasons for being on the street and the way mental health/individual history affects people’s perceptions and understanding of the help available to them would vary greatly…. even then those resources are incredibly stretched & in all likelihood she’s not getting access to the help she needs. I always buy “The Big Issue” magazines (the vendors are usually homeless and keep the profits) & lots of other charities… but in that situation I may not have wanted to “reward” her behaviour (for want of a better word). Although it also shows how desperate she was I guess. If she’d asked me in a non threatening way later I probably would have said yes. No easy answers, sorry, although if I had my children around, my priority would have been to protect them from a potentially scary situation (for them). Thought provoking post.

    • Thanks for weighing in on this, Misha. It is even trickier the more I read the comments and think about what others have raised. In the end, I did wonder as well about whether I would have to protect my children if they’d been with me. The lady didn’t seem like she’d be physically violent but her raised voice could have actually made my toddler more scared than curious. I would’ve had to high tail it out of there in that case. Whether I would have also said something to the lady in that instance or not, I am not sure. I suppose sometimes, what you do depends on the spur of the moment and how all the various components align.

  6. When we lived in London, we were constantly asked for money for ‘food’ etc. If we gave to everyone who asked we would have been broke. We made a rule that we would never give cash but would happily buy the person what they ‘wanted’. People who genuinely wanted to buy food were grateful and happy for us to buy them a sandwich or what ever they wanted.
    We had one guy who hassled us for money to buy dinner at Waterloo station in the middle of the food court. My husband said he would happily buy the guy any meal he chose in the entire food court, but they guy said he wanted “something different”. My husband explained that he would not give the guy money; if he was hungry then he would have to choose from one of the 15 outlets available. The guy became aggressive, but my husband stood his ground. Eventually the guy said “forget it” and walked away. Clearly he wasn’t hungry like he told us he was.
    This episode reinforced our policy of being generous in buying the person what they say they need, but only giving cash/money to established charities rather than individuals. Over the years we have bought lots of sandwiches, coffees, and paid for several tanks of petrol for strangers who have asked. If someone asks for money to buy something, I go and buy it for them. I feel that this is a way I can be wise and generous with my money , and my kids can see me doing something too.

  7. It’s a hard one. We have a lot of itinerants in Darwin who ask for money and I usually say no, but that’s because you can smell the alchohol on them. It’s fairly obviously where the money will get spent.
    What this lady did was wrong though; she had no excuse to yell abusively to that woman for saying no.

    • It is a tough issue, Jess. I guess it is a matter of defining what is the best way to help. But some of the ideas people have shared have already given me some greater perspective.

  8. Such a hard situation. I think I would have protected my children by walking away – and no doubt I would have had many questions asked later. I don’t generally give money to strangers who are begging for it (although it depends on the situation – and the one you were in, I probably wouldn’t have.) Most of the time I don’t have spare change anyway (the pitfalls of a plastic society).

    • Thinking it through, Deb, I agree with taking the children away from the situation. I can imagine my daughter could have actually been more scared than curious with the way the lady was talking. It’s hard to find the right words to explain such things to a 3 year old. I guess I’d just hope/pray for wisdom in the moment, if and when the moment comes.

  9. Having been on the receiving end of charity a few years ago, I realised that people were trusting me to use with this money so I did my utmost to be responsible. Because of that, I’ve become selective with where I donate my money these days.
    I’m sorry that young lady had to experience that but I hope it’s helped to strengthen her own resolve, not discouraged her to donate to worthy causes!

  10. The questions you asked yourself are questions I have asked myself many times too (when confronted with a person asking for money). It’s so difficult isn’t it? Loved hearing your thought process, feeling your compassion, and your empathy (“what if my daughter had witnessed it”). I remember being asked for money by a homeless guy when I was travelling in the US. I didn’t know what the social etiquette was, but felt some human etiquette – of course. I was on my own and felt a little vulnerable too. In the end, I went into a coffee shop, bought the biggest coffee and some pastry, came out and gave it to him (it was a freezing cold Chicago morning). I hope it’s what he wanted or that it pleased him in some way.

    As for the woman who went into a tirade in your story… well, this is a sad reflection of her anger and insecurity. Very bad form.

    • What you decided to do in your experience, Deb, is similar to another commenter whose policy is to never give money to individuals but buy food/drink instead if that’s what the person really needs. Monetary donations are only given to official charities or similar organisations. In principle, it sounds like a good policy but I guess there will always be a situation to challenge that. I must say I feel a bit less sympathetic when I see the same people loitering in the same places always asking for money. Maybe that’s wrong of me. The extra challenge on all this is teaching our children about charity and giving. I hope I have the wisdom to know what to say and do when my children start asking me the tricky questions.

  11. I have a similar story from years ago that is still clear in my mind. I was on my way home from work on a Sunday when I was stopped by a young man asking for money and when I said no , he totally went off at me.. It got me angry. I had just spent my whole Sunday working and there he was blaming me for not sharing with him. Obviously I had no idea of his situation, but from what I could see he was fit to work, too… There are two sides in this and just as it is hard for the giver to judge without knowing the full story, it is also impossible for the potential recipient to know what’s in your heart and your wallet. An angry tirade like that would totally turn me off from giving to that person.

  12. I’ve met both polite and abusive beggars. It is scary and embarrassing when you get abused in public. I just walk away hoping they don’t have a knife! It’s hard to shake off experiences in the Philippines and not expect them here.

    • Our experiences do shape our attitudes. I’ve seen different forms of begging when I travelled too. The most creative was one in New York who held up a sign assuring any kind giver that the money was not to be used for beer!

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