Sometimes I shock myself at how arbitrarily I decide whether to give to a beggar on the street. Of course I can’t say yes to everyone -- or even a tenth of those who ask. I have one rule, that I don’t open my billfold; I don’t give if I don’t have change in my pocket. But other than that, my decisions are made entirely on the impulse of the moment. I have the power to give, and I exercise it.
But now St. Louis has initiated a campaign to say no to beggars and give instead to registered charities. Lord knows it is easy enough to say no without being instructed by the city to turn our backs on the poor.
Surely anybody who asks for money needs it -- maybe for a drink, yes, but maybe for a sandwich or a blanket. Beggars are needy. That’s why they’re asking. Nobody would stand on a corner asking for money if they didn’t need it.
Asking for money is humbling. That’s why most of us don’t like to ask for charitable contributions, putting ourselves in the other’s power to say yes or no. To set ourselves up to receive the kindness of friends and strangers reminds us that our place in the world is small. On the other hand, most people like to be asked to give; it’s a mark of honor and respect.
To be asked for money or food or work by a poor person is to be touched by human need. I’m grateful to these beggars for giving me repeated opportunities to learn to be generous and to give without attempting to judge whether I’m facing the deserving or the undeserving poor.
In the end, what’s so bad about the city ban on giving is that it offers us yet another excuse to ignore real people who have nothing. We have permission to pretend they don’t exist.