To give or not to give, that is the question but what is the answer? There are many panhandlers, beggars, homeless people, and people with mental health illnesses roaming the streets of Toronto (T.O.). Often times you see people, men, women, and youths with signs on cardboard pieces that read, “I am hungry and homeless please spare some change so that I can eat” or they just come right up to you and ask.
Begging is fast becoming pandemic in T.O. and one can expect on any given day to come face to face with someone asking for money, "spare some change”. The dilemma is, when confronted with someone who seems to be less fortunate than you what do you do. It is heart breaking to see and a vivid reminder of the fragility of life and how one's reality can shift in the blink of an eye.
How can one not feel compassion, after all it’s not hard to image (God forbid) oneself, a friend or a loved one in such a dire situation. But when does empathy override common sense and when is it appropriate to set aside common sense in favour of sympathy for another human being? This is the quandary. To whom do you give? Why do you give to one and not the other? What is the determining factor? What is the reasoning one employ in making such a decision? What are the barometers of preconceived biases secretly held and measured to determine suitability? To give or not to give and to whom to give, that is the question but what is the answer?
It is such a dilemma I witnessed yesterday on the faces of the passengers on the train while on my way to work. It was interesting to see diverse reactions, the hesitation, the judgement, the censure, the disgust, the compassion, the fear, the contempt and the asserted superior attitude.
It was just past 8:20 am when the trained stopped at Broadview Station and passengers loaded off and on. One passenger in particular, a young woman came on and promptly started speaking in a loud voice, “excuse me, can anyone please spare some change, I am very hungry and I need money to buy some food, also I am homeless and it’s very hard living on the streets. Can you please help me out please?” while going from person to person with her hands outstretched.
One woman reached for her purse but hesitated and looked around to see if anyone was giving. Satisfied that some where indeed giving money she retrieved some change and gave it to the young woman. Many others simply sat with their heads in their books, while others looked on with censor and judgements visible on their faces.
Realizing that she was not going to get any more money the woman quickly checked the money in her palm and indignantly shouted, "Come on people, $4! Four dollars is not enough; I need more than that to eat! Can someone give me some change please, please I need more.”
At this point a man 4 seats down to my left decided he had enough and told her, “There are many food banks that will give you food, go to one of them”. The young woman did not answer but instead chose to exit our car and went to the other car where I can see her again working her way through that car with her begging mantra.
I am sure you are wondering if I gave her money or not. I did not. Why you ask. Because I happen to know this particular woman, she’s an addict. Years ago I had an encounter with her when she snatched my eldest daughter drink out of her hand when she was little while we were waiting for the bus. She was not aware that I there, a little off to the side, when I confronted her she attempted to give the drink back. I did not take it back but I had her apologize to my daughter.
Does that mean I won’t' give to someone I think maybe an addict, no, it simply means I know her. It just struck me how much more bold she has become over the years seemingly unafraid to use people's fear that she might be crazy to intimidate as she invades their personal space while simultaneously sticking her hands out and asking loudly "can you give me some change! I need money for food!" It was just frighteningly jarring how calculating she seemed. I suppose after so many years of drug she probably has developed some psychological issues/challenges.
Though frightening I doubt that her display of calculating boldness will stop me from giving; it will render me a bit more cautious and mindful however. Is that the answer, to be cautious and mindful? I don't know as I cannot determine for anyone whether or not they should give or not. I give because I know that not all beggars are drug addicts or alcoholics or lazy, some may be suffering from mental health issues while others may have encountered unfortunate circumstances that render them temporarily homeless.
I have often given out change and on occasion purchased food for the person(s) asking, and I am more than likely will do it again. Why? It’s simple really. I give because I want to. I had one guy that had me in gales of laughter because he approached me as ask if I could spear a penny, I looked up into his face, he was a young Caucasian man probably in is late twenties early thirties and I asked, a penny, what can you get with a penny? He looked at me sheepishly and smiled saying, “well mam I know not everyone have money or much to give so I figure every penny counts.” I opened my red leather change purse just as my streetcar arrived and emptied it in his hands, it totalled $5.00 he looked at me and smiled saying thanks. I said, “Thanks for making me laugh,” bidding him a good evening as I boarded the streetcar.
I was still smiling as I entered the train and then the bus on my way home thinking that smile was worth the $5, silly right? The thing I learned from my experiences over the years with panhandlers is, when you are approached for money; if or when you decide to give, give simply for the sake of giving. Do not foolishly bamboozle yourself into believing that you can dictate how the recipient of your kindness will use the money. They will use it as they see fit whether you approve or disapprove.
So what’s the answer?