Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beggars Belief

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?


greg said...

I tell them to try the Salvation Army in Bourke Street, near Spring Street: they're better able to assess and help.

Cinema Autopsy said...

I'm glad you differentiated between The Big Issue vendors and beggars. People selling The Big Issue are working and they do it to help get themselves back on their feet. In many cases they would possibly earn more money from begging but they choose to be vendors instead in order to preserver (or reclaim) their dignity. In fact, one the worst things you can do is offer a vendor money without taking a copy of the magazine. Tipping them is fine but so long as it is part of the transaction.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks, Greg - sounds like good advice. Thomas, there's a massive chasm between begging and selling The Big Issue. I've made friends with a number of vendors and know well the disadvantage many of them face. I genuinely respect the effort they make to better their situation. However, I've not had any negative responses to the money I give without taking a magazine. The reality is I don't have time to read it usually. I usually pull my $5 out and give it but decline the magazine simply saying that I don't have time to read it but support what you're doing. That usually elicits surprise and appreciation.

I had a discussion about this subject with an ACMI staff member today. I told her over the last 2-3 years, I've offered to buy a meal for beggars (rather than give money direct) on up to a dozen separate occasions. Each time, the offer has been declined. This ACMI staffer said she wasn't surprised, that it was an affront to their dignity. Maybe it is, I don't know. But if I was starving and someone offered me a meal, I don't think I'd have a problem accepting. I interpret these reactions as not being sincerely in need of food. Any other opinions?

Cinema going Welfare Worker! said...

How would you know what you would do or expect? Have you ever been homeless or that in need or that out of control of your life? I find your comments on this whole thing naive, middle class and condescending, I think maybe you should stick to the film reviewing Paul! You are slightly better at that....only slightly ;)

Paul Martin said...

Actually, CGWW, I think about that quite a bit, especially when I'm confronted with a situation like the above. In fact, that I contemplate it is the reason I stop to speak to such people at all. Like you and everyone else, I have my limitations, and I tackle it as best I can.

FWIW, I'm not really a film reviewer per se. I'm a cinephile who writes about his film and other experiences. I don't separate cinema from social issues and cinema that tackles social issues is what I like most. Which is one reason why, for example, Samson and Delilah meant a lot to me.

There's plenty of better film reviewers out there; I just write from my perspective. That's what blogging is all about. If I can provoke some dialogue, that's great, not that you've added anything positive to the discussion. Anyone can criticise or put down. That's easy.

Caitlin said...

I try not to have any hard and fast rules about what sort of begging warrants what sort of response. If someone asks me for something, I look them in the eyes and I really listen.

If I feel like they are sincere, then I give them money. If they look shifty, I politely decline.

And then (and this bit is crucial for me) I forget about it.

No guilt if I didn't give them money, no wondering what the money was actually spent on if I did, not another thought.

After all, it doesn't really matter. It's only a bit of money!

Paul Martin said...

That sounds like a fair response to me, Caitlin. I don't think there is any one right response, and it's a contentious and delicate issue. On the one hand, begging is technically illegal. On the other, a person has compassion. And yet again, there are a lot of scumbags out there (both on and off the streets).

Al said...

Oh, the begging question... can of worms there Paul! I've also pretty much adopted a "sorry mate" response, based on something I heard from someone in the welfare sector, that random handouts generally tend to perpetuate the person's problems rather than lead to a longer-term solution. And I guess that's what's behind your trying to make sure the money goes towards food (easy if you're buying it) or shelter (very difficult for you to know without following the person for the rest of the day!). Is it insulting their dignity to want to buy their food directly? I don't know, I'd think the act of begging means other needs have superceded the need for dignity anyway, and besides, it indicates to me that you're taking a personal interest. Of course it belies a suspicion about their honesty as well, questioning whether they are going to spend it on food or booze or whatever. So I guess the problem is how to articulate your desire to truly help, rather than enable an addiction, to someone who's in desperate need of something, and that might well be something that's "not good for them". I've become very wary about my contact with beggars since an incident a year or so ago where I politely declined a guy and he followed me to where I was waiting at a pedestrian crossing, then shoulder-bumped and threatened to hit me. Somehow I managed to puff myself up to appear threatening (I am tall but absolutely unequipped for self-defence!) and he backed off as I crossed the road.

Just to bring this back to film though - funny you should mention Samson and Delilah - the begging scenes in that hit me hard, because of course I've been that guy-at-a-cafe-table, and done that split-second dismissal thing they all did, but in the film I was so empathetic to Delilah's world by that stage, that their dismissal seemed incredibly harsh and indifferent. Will it change my response next time I'm asked for money? I don't know, but it shifted my thinking, as has your post and the responses. Cheers.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for the considered comments, Al. Yes, it is a can of worms, isn't it? You've articulated a point better than I that handouts can perpetuate the problem. If giving to a beggar encourages the person to continue begging, then that's prolonging the problem. I think begging is legitimate as a desperate short-term measure, not as an alternative form of vocation.

I think buying their food can be insulting if they feel they're following you around like a dog at your mercy. In my follow-up post to this one, I addressed this by telling the beggar to order the coffee herself and tell the staff I'd pay for it, which I'd confirm if I was asked. Since this incident, I've seen the woman multiple times, and I sense that she's using begging as a means of longer term support. Of course, I'm making all sorts of judgements here, but I feel as the person being asked to part with something I've worked for, I'm entitled to.

A pet hate of mine is beggars approaching people in a dining situation, and I'm thinking here of Degraves St and Centre Place where I often have lunch. I find it unacceptable to bail people up when they're sitting and eating or drinking; it's a type of ambush or taking hostage. Eating should be stress-free and I think it's downright unacceptable in most cultures of the world to disturb people during a meal.

Funny you mention film, Al, because cinema has at least partially informed my responses to begging. It was Alkinos Tsilimidos' Tom White that turned around my previously stalwart opposition to begging, to look a bit further. Colin Friels' depiction of Tom White awoke me to the part that mental illness plays in a person's homelessness and need for help from others by desperate means.