Saturday, July 29, 2006

On Begging

[Written in a moment of frustration – from my journal 10/14/05]

I’ve been thinking a lot about begging lately, contemplating its meaning and thinking of doing it a little myself.

I can remember begging as a teenager, when I was a runaway. A couple years ago I wrote about it for the Voice:

I learned to panhandle pretty quickly. I panhandled for food, for cigarettes, and for pot. Panhandling is a lot like hitchhiking. You have to be in the right spot. You have to look un-intimidating. Occasionally someone will screech their tires driving past or throw something at you while you are trying to thumb a ride. Sometimes people will make rude remarks or spit at you when you try to spange money for lunch. At least with hitchhiking there is a sense of adventure. Panhandling was just humiliating.

I think I am beginning to understand the difference between my experiences of panhandling and hitchhiking. When I hitchhike, I intentionally place myself at the mercy of others. As a result, when I hitchhike I am filled with the experience of being on a pilgrimage, of stepping into a great adventure. The hardships make me a better person; the good times and lucky occasions come as little miracles to lift my spirits. I discovered great things about poverty and good fellowship as a hitchhiker. I was taken under wing by homeless people, gifted money by rich people, and offered grand stories by fellow travelers, all given honestly and with a spirit of generosity and encouragement. I asked for rides, for directions, for advice on good places to camp. I was often given what I asked and a good deal more.

When I was homeless, I wasn’t panhandling to place myself upon the mercy of others (although many offered it generously, and I only felt more ashamed). Though I asked for money, what I was begging for was independence. So my actions and my intentions were alienated from one another, and I resented my situation. Maybe that is why work, when it first became available to me, seemed like such a blessing.

I try to imagine what it would be like now to go and beg for money downtown. Aside from the dirty remarks that are to be expected, I think people will question my purpose. Don’t you have a job? You look like you are able to work. Why don’t you work for money? The staff at Bread & Roses might be embarrassed and try to increase my stipend. What would people think of Bread & Roses? Don’t they pay their people enough? How can they presume to help the poor when they must beg for themselves?

There would be condescension as well. I give my money to the Salvation Army. Here, take a resource brochure, do something useful with yourself. You’ll just spend it on booze. (I might well, I do like a beer occasionally, and a good deal of my stipend is spent at my favorite bar.) I’m reminded a bit of the evangelicals who “work for the poor”. I once heard a man from [a faith base social service agency] speak at an Associated Ministries meeting.

“Don’t give them money!” he exclaimed. “They’ll just spend it on BOOOOZE! Give them the 12 steps, but for God’s sake, don’t give them money! God helps those who help themselves, and we should help the ones who are choosing to clean up their lives,” he says. I was boiling hot with anger.

In fact, it is convenient that Ben Franklin first coined the phrase “God helps those who help themselves”, because I say that it is Caesar who helps those who help themselves, and God who helps the helpless, as we should! Let the government care for the avaricious, we should seek a different way for ourselves.

When I think back on it, I would like to have invited this man to step outside onto the streets to panhandle with me. We could’ve spanged money for a cup of coffee, and discussed the experience together.

I want to beg now because I am done with independence. I want hope. I want to know that people are still kind, and that I can count on my brother to be my keeper.

No comments:

Currently Reading:

  • Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America - Todd Depastino

Recently Finished Reading:

  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Utopia of Usurers - GK Chesterton
  • Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton