Dear Father Tony,
My partner and I got into a huge fight when we visited New York City three weeks ago. I gave money to a woman on the subway who said she was HIV+, had three kids, homeless and had nothing to eat. My partner said I was naïve and stupid. I said he was cold and lacking compassion. We still have not cleared the air about this and it almost ruined the rest of our trip. It seems like a little thing, but every time I think about us planning a return vacation, I think about that argument and I think "Never again New York". I hope you will take my side but whatever.
Generous or Dumb?
If my husband and I had to avoid all the places in which we have had an argument, Dayton Ohio might be the one place left for us to visit. With that in mind, and as a half-of-the-year New Yorker, I'm willing (foolishly?) to dive into a sensitive issue that even the locals argue about ferociously.
This city contains a probably constant number of beggars who work the sidewalks and the subway cars. Additionally, there are homeless who set up cardboard camps on church steps and under canopies that keep the rain off and over air vents that provide winter heat. Their handwritten tales of woe certainly seem evidenced by their lifestyle. The tambourine sound of the change in their Styrofoam cups reminds one of the plaintiff bell-ringers on the city streets before Christmas.
New York City is also workplace to folks who sing, or play musical instruments, and will pass a hat at the conclusion of their performance. The city and the transportation authority permit and assign specific places for street musicians. I think the proper response to a musical performance is to give at a level matching your pleasure in the entertainment and your financial capacity. Last week in the subway I saw a five-member mariachi band wearing wide sombreros set up and sing and pass a hat in a crowded car all in the brief time between stops. The music was sweet and their mastery of logistics made me wish they were on the board of General Motors. I gave them money.
But your argument was about beggars who claim hardship and misfortune. There are some things you do not see because you are not a resident. In my neighborhood, there is a little gray haired man who stands in the middle of the flow of traffic on the sidewalk and unfolds a sign in his hands that lists his misfortunes and health problems, lost job and homelessness. His sad eyes are cast downward. Because he holds no cup, he tends to receive paper money donations. He works the same block for months at a time. He sometimes scoots around the corner with sudden rejuvenation and whips out a cell phone. I paused once to eavesdrop and heard him berate a landscaper doing work at his home on Long Island. Pretending to be waiting for someone and after he finished the call, I drew him into a conversation about the difficulties of getting a good contractor and I got a lot of detail about his real circumstances. Now, whenever we cross paths, I stand one foot in front of his face silently glaring until he goes away.
There is also a young portly fellow who lives on the sidewalk near our building. His sign claims that he is willing to work for food. Every morning, while he is off getting fed at any of the many stations that service the homeless, the building's janitor must sweep way his garbage and hose his urine of the sidewalk. Every evening, he spends his loot on booze and drugs and starts insulting the same passersby he had smiled at earlier in the day. One evening, as I went out for the night, I saw that he had a female companion on his cardboard bed. Later, coming home from the bar, I saw him having sex on top of her. She appeared to have passed out.
A young woman in front of my Starbucks shouts out "Help the homeless" next to one of those large clear plastic water cooler jugs. She appears to be affiliated with a benevolent organization that seems to put the homeless to work albeit begging for support for their homelessness. Watch her long enough and you will see her empty the contents of the jug and head to a nearby bodega where she will purchase a pack of cigarettes that she then smokes out of sight. In New York City, those cigarettes cost ten dollars a pack. (The Starbucks manager has forced her to relocate.)
In the interest of brevity already violated, I will not continue my list of similar stories that would serve to show you that when you give money to beggars you are doing it largely to make yourself feel good but you are not really doing anything to help the beggar who is most often a skilled and antisocial actor with some serious psychological and substance-abuse problems. Enabling their bad behavior is not an act of compassion but is really only a soothing of some personal guilt you may harbor about your own good fortune.
Generosity is praiseworthy and admirable. I suggest you sit down with your partner, tell him you regret the argument and have decided to make a regular donation to God's Love We Deliver or some similar entity, instead of succumbing to beggars.
Do I sound hard-hearted? I am not. Three weeks ago, after having purchased gourmet food for our regular picnic on "our bench" on Broadway, a man approached us and said that he was hungry. I gave him half my sandwich without hesitation. I watched him eat it as he walked away. I don't know if he was rich, poor, addicted or addled. He was simply hungry and asking for food. This kind of impromptu giving makes sense to me and is in line with the teachings of Jesus, but if you offer a sandwich to most of the beggars in New York City, they will give you the forgetaboutit-getoutahere look and demand your cash. Wise up, my compassionate friend. Learn to give well, and do not let these harsh realities make you cynical or any less magnanimous.