Eyes lock, and I know I will be the next person asked; so I take a wide berth, look down at my phone – but it just means they take an extra stride. I’ve found that ‘do you have two dollars?’ is more common than ‘will you give me two dollars?’ It is because it forces us to lie to both answer the question properly and decline – a naughty trick, perhaps shaped by necessity.
So long as my eye contact was brief and I escape making a proper body language introduction, normally my response is ‘sorry mate’, so I’m at least not telling a lie.
I play it cool, nonchalant even, but the reality is that it hurts. It hurts because it so simple; my fellow man asked me for an assistance that I have the capacity to provide, but I didn’t oblige. As much as I’d like to absolve responsibility by asserting that it’s more complex than this, I can’t make it so. The most vulnerable in society shunned by someone on a higher rung; the very thing I despise about others, yet my conviction to make a difference in this area has always been lacking.
Begging is an inner-city phenomenon; it is part poverty, part mental-illness, part life-choice, part identity. There is no every day event like it; worry about your outdated 18-month old shoes vanishes in comparison to those wearing none, your workplace stresses seem futile in contrast with someone incapable of gaining permanent employment and your anxiety about how to fund a bed in a resort in Vanuatu for two weeks seems gratuitous considering the man before you seems to be scraping his pennies so that he can sleep on a foldaway in a nearby building tonight.
Mostly these days I get around in office wear, probably carrying some unnecessary snack or fiddling with an expensive gadget; and this makes me a prime target. So sometimes I pull out the wallet, hand over a couple of bucks with a ‘look after yourself’, but only ever when asked point blank. For some reason I bias towards people closer to my age and who are better dressed. Perhaps I fail to empathise with people whom I can’t see any of myself in.
We tell ourselves that we work hard, that the challenges before us are steep, and that we are worth at least every cent to our name. We think that if we’re able to slide onto a bus early every morning to nod and smile all day, then everyone can. We think too that if we’re not at point of financial security we damned well won’t be helping anyone else get there. We think that we pay taxes for welfare, it’s not our fault they don’t make the most of that. We recite with jealousy our mates born into wealthier families than us, but conveniently forget those born to poorer ones. We treat our own problems as pressing, and others’ as tangential. We think of ourselves as the protagonist in every transaction.
After all, I’m not wealthy enough to be responsible here. I’m not old enough either. I can defer to that bloke 10 yards behind me, he’s 40 or 50, and he wears a better suit that I do and carries a leather briefcase. He’s probably a senior manager or something. I will make a difference to this myself when I’m older. Yeah. That’s fair.
For me there is no strategy here, no daily plan, no prescription on who and how much. So most times I just pass by, but never without some reflection.
Maybe they’re just too lazy to improve themselves? But maybe they don’t have enough blankets to beat the chill tonight… Maybe they want it to buy drugs or alcohol? But maybe that’s the only thing that keeps them going… Maybe they’re just being selfish? But maybe I am too…
I hope they make it through to tomorrow okay; and they’ll be alright without my help, right?
Youth Off The Streets