I was down Lygon St. this evening and a woman was sitting on the cold and dark pavement asking for money. I consider myself a generous person, but I've had a long-standing policy of not giving to beggars. I'll give to buskers, I'll give to Big Issue vendors, even sometimes I give to charity (selectively) but generally I don't give to beggars.
Why? Partly it's an intuitive thing that I find hard to rationalise, but I'll try. I give to others, because I feel they're doing something, they're taking initiative and doing something to justify others giving. Beggars are often substance abusers who - we assume - are going to misuse the money for things other than basic necessities. I'm happy to part of a solution but not part of the problem and don't want to fund someone's nicotine, alcohol or other drug habit.
In recent years, I've loosened my attitude to beggars. It probably started with seeing Alkinos Tsilimidos' Tom White, a film that affected me deeply and made me look at homelessness differently. Isn't that what cinema is all about? I still tend to avoid those beggars that are obviously (at least, in my opinion or perception) are drug addicts. Depending on the demands on my time, sometimes I've taken to questioning the beggar, as I did twice tonight in short succession (and with hindsight, I suspect they're a male and female team).
Sometimes I've had conversations with homeless people and mental illness is clearly a factor for many of them. Sometimes I'll offer to buy food for the person, but this offer has never been taken up. I could mention a few stories, but that'll have to wait for another time (right, always another time).
So this 30-something woman, better-spoken than most and no obvious signs of addiction or mental illness asks for money. "What for", I ask. "For food and a room", comes the reply. "I won't give you money", I say, "but I'm happy to buy you a meal". "Nuh", she says, "I just want to buy some bread or something". "Well, let's go buy some bread". "Nuh, I just need $38 for a room for the night". And I walk away. A person says they want food, you offer food, but they just want the money.
As I'm walking away, I think about it. Maybe she said food, but really she just wants a room. Maybe I could have given something. I dunno, this is a hard one. This is where intuition plays a part, not that it's necessarily reliable.
I cross the road and find myself in a similar conversation with a guy of similar age. When I ask similar questions, he says he wants $38 for a room for the night in St. Kilda. OK, I give him $5. I'd just given the Big Issue vendor $5 and I was wondering what he thought of my charity. I suspected that he thought I was being conned; maybe I was.
When I crossed the road again, I handed the woman the $5 and said "I don't know what you're going to do with this, but I don't want to be part of someone's problem. If you're genuine, you can't survive like this". "I know", she said, "God bless". Goddamn, I hate that. It sounds so fucking false and bullshit. It occurred to me that these two are both claiming they need the same amount and are probably working together. We really don't know who is genuinely in need, and whether our contribution is making things better, or contributing to someone's decline. I find it sad that homelessness has become a bigger and bigger issue over time.
A final word: I will never give to a beggar who hassles people while they're eating a meal or having a coffee. I'm thinking specifically of Degraves St. This is a pet hate of mine and no culture on the planet accepts that you harrass people while they're eating. It's a kind of ambush where people don't want indigestion so are less likely to tell you to fuck off and have nowhere to go.
While this post might seem to have little to do with cinema, it touches on themes that recur regularly, and affect me most in films. Social issues and themes that touch on the nature of life, death and everything can be conveyed most magnificently and effectively through cinema, don't you think?