we are the beggars (part 1)

It was pointed out to me that San Francisco has a lot of homeless people… more than many cities, I presume largely because of the temperate climate year round. As I was wandering around downtown the other night, I couldn’t help but notice the different methods by which the homeless would beg for money. There are five main ones that I’ve noticed over time, as follows…

The Musician: Probably the most common, or well known, way to solicit money is by demonstrating talent as a street musician. It’s unobtrusive in that they don’t need to hassle anyone for cash. It’s just a matter of setting up shop on some well trafficked corner, putting out a guitar case (or saxophone case, or accordion case) and making music for hours on end. Sometimes these guys are quite good – there was this one street musician in San Fran who was working a corner by my hotel playing all sorts of buckets as drums… very tribal, I actually kind of liked it.

The Tour Guide: Steph and I ran across one of these in Atlanta one time. We were there celebrating Valentine’s Day, looking for a place to eat downtown, and this nice friendly guy walks up to us and welcomes us to the fine city of Atlanta. He asks a little bit about us, and then inquires if we are looking for a nice place to eat – we say we are – and he proceeds to give us about 8 different, and well qualified, suggestions. Then about five minutes later he moves in for the hard-sell… “Hey, I helped you find a place to eat… can I get a little cash?” These guys target the tourists and travelers who aren’t well acquainted with the city, and generally have a business sense about them that is less abrasive than other methods.

The Wanderer: The Wanderer’s are the few who live with hope. Their lot in life will be changed as soon as they get enough money to board a bus, or hitch a ride, to insert random city name here . For them they believe it’s a location problem… their troubles will be solved in Chicago, or Memphis, or Phoenix, and naturally they have some long-lost relative who is going to help them get their start in random city , and I’m certain that relative is truly looking forward to seeing them.

The Insane: These guys are crazy, literally. They’re on the move and cover more square blocks in one night than most taxi drivers. These are the guys who have a coffee can permanently affixed to their left hand, and with their right arm they are running up and down the sidewalk at lighting speed shouting, waving, and in general, acting extremely animated in attempts to get your attention. You cannot understand a single word they say. I imagine these guys are generally the drug-seekers… you know, the one’s who promise you that all they need to move on in life is to go down to the McDonald’s and get a hamburger… until you offer to buy them a hamburger and suddenly getting food is the worst idea they have ever heard.

The Pitiful: These ones make your heart break. They’re retired Musicians and Tour Guides. They’re Wanderer’s who got to their destination and realized it wasn’t any different than the city they came from. They’re Insanes who have grown weary. If they’re lucky they have a jacket. Their shoulders are slumped, and they don’t move very fast anymore. The coffee can is long gone – they only stick out a hand in silence, their only indication that they need money from you because they do not, or can not, speak.

San Francisco was interesting in this regard. I definitely saw all types, and you always wonder… ‘Do I give him money, or am I just adding fuel to the problem?’ I don’t know what the answer is, even after living in big cities for 10 years now. I will say one thing though… I never saw so many people actually lying down on the sidewalk to sleep on a bed of newspapers. You had to wonder if some of them are even alive.

So now I ask you, fine readers, what do you do? Do you give them the cash? Do you ignore them and walk on by?

Christians are called to help the poor, which sounds good on paper, but when the situation arises, we’re hurrying on our way to some important place, and we don’t have the time to take them down to the local shelter, or buy them a burger at McDonalds… or even just take a moment to treat them like a real human being and listen to their story.

    • Anonymous
    • February 25th, 2008

    mmm.. the homeless. there were times when i’d layer on some clothes and just go wander around downtown, sit on random benches, walk through empty parking lots and just watch people. i wanted to just take someone out to dinner, just to get a chance to talk to them, hear their story, but i was always afraid it would come off like a visitor at a zoo, a pity case, or something like that. i was afraid of the safety factor, or lack thereof. once i saw a van pull into an empty parking lot and it was instantly a traveling soup kitchen type thing. sometimes i wanted to reinvent the wheel to try and change the world but later decided simply to step into something already running – like the nashville rescue mission. the poor and homeless will always be around. the rescue mission certainly didnt meet the needs of all, but it changed the lives of many one at a time..

    • Anonymous
    • February 26th, 2008

    I don’t know about San Francisco, but in NYC most of the street musicians and tour guides are not homeless. This is their chosen profession. My favorite street musician is the ‘Saw Lady’ ( http://www.sawlady.com/blog )- I’ve seen her on TV and I know she regularly performs at concert halls like Carnegie Hall, yet she also plays in the subway. The homeless used to sell ‘Street News’ here. Maybe they still do. I wish there was more federal help for them.

    • uncle tim
    • February 27th, 2008

    it’s always a difficult conundrum when I’m asked as a Christian to help a homeless person. I’ve been burned many times, finding out only later (for sure) that I’ve been scammed for my $5 bill or spare change. I don’t think we’re called to naively give, but I don’t always know where to draw the line. Usually, no matter what the case, I’ll pay someone for doing a job (like providing me entertainment…via music or whatever). Hey, you’re working, so I’ll pay you. That’s about all I’ve got so far…

    • Flash
    • February 27th, 2008

    Helping the homeless is something that always looks good on paper. And its pretty easy to do within programs set up for that purpose. The real test comes when you are running off to some restaurant or music store and a homeless person essentially blindsides you. In the midst of that nervous, awkward encounter what do you do? Do you give them money? If they are asking for food money or gas money, do you offer to feed them or fill their tank?

    I am so inconsistent when it comes to those moments. Sometimes I help and even take time out for the person. Other times I simply ignore them or bat them aside…to my shame. I think that we often see or at least think of these people (and moments) as inconveniences on our time and our little world. It can be selfishness and self absorption that can keep us from helping such people.

    Tim brings up an interesting point. What about those who take advantage of our charity? I agree that the line is difficult to draw. We don’t want to feed an addiction or something that is enslaving a person. But we don’t want to think every single person is looking to scam us and then not help anyone. In the end, it will come down to time. Will you take the time to go feed a man or fill up a lady’s gas tank?

    • Melissa
    • February 28th, 2008

    about the thoughts of charity being taken advantage of… getting scammed by people happens all around anyway.. people get taken advantage of by friends, coworkers, perhaps even family. if everyone acted out of the fear of getting scammed by other people, life would suck-no one would ever take a chance and no one would interact with anyone else. the bible says that its Gods kindness that leads people to repentance… what’s the motivation behind the actions? there seems to be a disconnect… i cant put my finger on it really, but it’s too much about us…

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