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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rather than respond in the comments...

... I've decided to write a fresh post on Thursday's topic.

First of all, thanks to everyone who weighed in with opinions, anecdotes, counter-opinions and clarifications.  As always, it is inspiring to see people from such diverse backgrounds sharing insights and respectfully disagreeing.

Several of you have emailed me to ask who is right and who is wrong (as if this were such a thing in the real world).  Others have asked what we opted to do vis-a-vis the beggar woman and why? 

The underlying theme in most of the emails was that Zahava and I had some clear policy about whom we give to, when, why and how much... and this simply isn't the case.  Like most people, we sort of make it up as we go along.

I also got a sense from many of your comments that you were under the impression that the woman's religion was a key component of our decision of whether or not to give... and this is also not the case.  It would probably be best to start with that one. 

I mentioned in Thursday's post that there was some confusion about whether the woman was Jewish, not because her religion would have had a clear bearing on whether or not to give, but rather because if she were not Jewish and yet was pretending to be by employing an easily-learned lexicon of Jewish buzz words (tzeddakah, hesed, shabbos, etc.) it would constitute a deliberate deception... and I don't know about you, but deception is something that saps me of any and all charitable inclination I might have had.

Long-time readers will remember my story of the 52nd Street BUMblebee as another illustration of my willingness to give regularly to someone without regard to their religion.  That story also touches on the issue of whether regular giving to the same person creates an expectation/obligation to continue doing so.

One of the commenters in Thursday's thread made reference to an experiment I performed while studying at a Yeshiva University in New York City.  I have a sense that I may have mentioned it once in a comment thread somewhere, but I can't find it now... so I'll share it here because it touches on many of the things some of you mentioned in your comments:

While enrolled in a crushingly boring sociology class, I found myself more than halfway through the semester without having made even preliminary preparations to do a paper that would count for a substantial portion of the final grade.  For the most part, the Austrian-born professor giving the class in his impenetrable accent talked about things that held exactly zero interest for me. 

However , one particular lesson he'd given dealing with the design of urban spaces in Europe vs those in the U.S. had piqued my interest.  The basic premise was that European public spaces tended to be designed to encourage people to come together and interact with one another (or at least acknowledge one another's presence)... while U.S. public spaces were designed to provide maximum privacy and to avoid forcing anyone to look directly at a stranger.

To illustrate the point he had talked about shopping malls and parks in the U.S. that had lots of seating set up in straight lines and circles with the chairs facing outwards.  This allowed strangers to sit in close proximity without intruding on one-another's line of sight.  In Europe, he continued, the plazas and piazza's were arranged with seating grouped in such a way that people cold see those who were seated nearby and easily speak to them.

I had half decided to do a paper on this concept, so I went out to Central, Grammarcy and Thompson Square parks to look at the seating arrangements there with fresh eyes.  However, instead of checking out the seating, I found myself walking through each of the parks and taking a good look at who was actually using the public spaces. 

This was back in the  mid-80s and New York was still showing clear signs of a decade of fiscal neglect in the 70s.  As a result, a significant portion of the people in the public spaces during the day were panhandlers

Almost without realizing I'd done so, I came to a decision to do my paper about the homeless people who used public spaces and how they organized themselves into their own social order.

Without too much trouble, I picked out some of my rattiest pants and torn shirt... supplemented them with a jacket from an army-navy store on 42nd street near 8th avenue, and finished off the ensemble with a pair of sneakers that I'd been meaning to throw out for some time due to a hole in the toe.

The plan was to spend a couple of days living 'on the street' and see the world of the parks from the point of view of a homeless person.

The topic for the paper ended up being 'The socio-economic stratification of street people in New York'.

At the top of the socio-economic urban outdoorsmen ladder were those who actively panhandled and did odd-jobs (squeegee guys, door openers, car guarders, parking space holders, etc.) for money.  The key to membership in this category was that almost all of those people saw their collection activities as a kind of self-employment.  They were using their wits and energy to part New Yorkers from their money... and for the most part seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it.

These are the ones who would almost certainly get angry, or even indignant, at someone who offered to buy them food or give them a coat.  The idea of someone implying that they were unqualified to decide how to spend their money was insulting.  The shame was not in begging for money, but rather in having someone try to co-opt their right to decide how to spend it.

At the lower end of the food chain were the inactive panhandlers.  These were the ones who sat passively in one place while foot traffic passed the spot they had chosen.  I couldn't be sure, but many of the people who fell into this category seemed genuinely bothered by having to beg for money.  They tended to not make eye contact and were much more likely to accept offers of food or clothing in lieu of money.

Many of these passive panhandlers (but certainly not all) were also much more likely to avail themselves of social services like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, while the active panhandlers tended to stake out subway grates, underpasses and other sheltered areas to sleep and eat.

My completely un-scientific thesis was that mental illness and/or substance abuse was at least a contributing factor in both kinds of panhandlers, but that the active panhandlers were less likely to break out of their way of life because they were less aware of the problematic nature of their existence. 

By the same token, I would venture a guess that the inactive panhandlers and shelter-dwellers were much more likely to seek/accept professional help.  Whether or not they were already beyond the limited ability of the social safety net to help them is anyone's guess.

Having said all this, let's return to the woman who stood outside Le Marais this past Wednesday evening.  I'm not even sure if she was homeless... but if she was, she would certainly fall into the active panhandler category.   And this is where I tend to dig in my heels.

You see, while I am not necessarily in a position to judge the level and authenticity of any given beggar's needs, if I get a sense that someone has made a career choice out of panhandling rather than doing it to alleviate an immediate need... well, I usually choose not to give.  Same goes for institutional collectors.  I like to choose which institutions I support, and those I support I do so generously.  I also tend to support charities in my own community before those abroad.  This may not be fair, but I like to think that this is one of the many interpretations of 'charity begins at home'.

Zahava was upset by a whole different set of criteria outside Le Marais.  Apparently, while she stood outside with Yonah waiting for us to pay the check and make our way out, she witnessed this woman literally chase several diners from the door of the restaurant all the way to the corner of Broadway.  This goes beyond active panhandling and crosses into harassment.  That our kids still wanted to give her money is more a testament to their own kind nature than to any indoctrination we may have given them.

I may have more to say on this in a bit, but for now that about sums it up.

Posted by David Bogner on August 26, 2007 | Permalink

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So aggressive panhandlers are a real turn-off. For me as well. But I still say, its not about THEM, but about me and my willingness to be a good and decent person. of course, I would much rather give to an organization (especially ones that have been there for my family)--and give much more generously that way....but I am so grateful for what I am blessed with, and that I am not them, that I generally do give a little something.

Posted by: Baila | Aug 27, 2007 12:16:52 AM

I apologize for commenting on comments, but Baila, your claim that giving makes you a better person is pure bunk. (Doing anything because it makes you feel righteous is the lowest form of condescension.) The only valid reason to give is to help others. PERIOD!!!

True, sometimes you can't know for sure if you're actually helping someone out of a bad situation or merely enabling that person to continue making bad decisions. But if the mere act of giving made you a better person, you could make yourself as righteous as G-d Himself by sending all your money to a radical Muslim "charity" (where your tender-hearted contribution may buy rockets for Palestinians - but why should that matter to a righteous person who gives for nothing but the purest of motives?).

Posted by: Bob | Aug 27, 2007 6:40:25 AM

Ever read The man with the twisted lip?

Posted by: soccerdad | Aug 27, 2007 9:06:41 AM

So that's what you meant - I was shocked about the faith bit bcs it didn't sound like you at all. I too think any sort of deception is unacceptable and that is why I always offer food instead of money if I'm asked for the latter (I'm very rarely asked for food). It very often is used for drugs or alcohol, and that way I know that if the person were hungry they'd no longer need to be. I also feel overwhelmed by all the charities that ring me constantly, I must have ended up on some list and I cannot give that much all the time. Giving to charities or organisations also makes me feel uncomfortable unless I know exactly how they work and can be sure the money/goods will be used properly - there's too much greed involved in the whole process and very often those who truly need it are not the ones that benefit from it.

It's all a bloody heartache, that's what it is.

Posted by: Lioness | Aug 27, 2007 2:44:01 PM

duh, bob, of course i meant giving to someone who looks needy, but i just dont know the circumstances, not to my local arab charter school looking to raise money for more "intifada NYC" t-shirts! i try to do things because they feel right, maybe that is a little condenscending, but that is certainly not intentional! Wow, this is a tough crowd!

Posted by: Baila | Aug 27, 2007 3:11:13 PM

Baila... While you may be right about that, I was talking more about the nuts and bolts behind what motivated us to our decision not to give. BTW, Ariella did give the woman something.

Bob... While I admire your passion for the subject I think you may have come down a little hard on Baila.

Soccordad... I am a huge SACD fan and especially like the adventures involving Holmes disguising himself. But I doubt I lived up to that level. During my time on the street a person who knew me walked right past me without noticing who I was, though. I think it was more due to people not looking directly at most homeless people rather than the professionalism of my disguise.

Lioness... Figuring out who deserves some of your money and how much is always going to be a touchy subject. Entitlement aside, there are so many potential criteria for making the decisions that a public discussion of it is bound to get touchy. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 27, 2007 5:47:04 PM

Hey Dave, I just remembered about the time we went to the Blue Note to see some band or other, (Illinois Jacquet?)
and were accosted outside the club by a panhandler. Instead of money, we gave him half a pizza pie we had just grabbed at J2. His response was ecstatic.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Aug 27, 2007 7:47:46 PM

Yes, I was a little too wound up. My apologies, Baila.

Posted by: Bob | Aug 27, 2007 10:24:02 PM

I'm catching up to all this... but I wouldn't have given money. If I had taken some leftover food home in a doggy-bag, I would have given that.

The challenge is that we can't know the individual's situation, and so we can't really determine the appropriate response to them. We're left with personal preferences and generalities.

The real shame, I think, is in not giving at all, whether that is in person on the street or via charitable causes.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Aug 27, 2007 10:27:41 PM

just a side comment in all of this, since I haven't thrown in my two sense worth.
I understand completely the reluctance to give to someone who is willingly deceiving you to extract money. But, is the act of learning certain 'buzz words' always an attempt to pass oneself off as Jewish, or could it just be that the needy person is demonstrating that they know something about the culture of the person to whom they are appealing? It doesn't have to be deceit. Of course, there is a huge chance that it is, but there's a good chance it isn't as well. Just thought I'd mention that I had seen another possible way of looking at things.

I rarely give money. But I have had quite a few interesting talks over a burger or pizza slice that I offered to buy.

Posted by: nrg | Aug 28, 2007 8:57:58 AM

I'm not sure if anyone already said this, but I think homeless advocates DO NOT suggest giving drectly to to the person. Better to give to the soup kitchen or shelter.

Posted by: Alice | Aug 28, 2007 2:01:32 PM

Another tough debate here, another comment by me where I've not quite worked out exactly what I want to say before writing, but... Here goes anyway.

First, I was an Upper West Sider during the '80's, when homelessness and panhandling became a big issue. For a time I did my own very unscientific little "survey" during walking errands on Broadway. When asked for a handout, I would duck into a deli and grab something- usually a roll and a V8 and offer that. I would say that approx. 7 out of 10 appeared to genuinely appreciate that more than "spare change."

Secondly, why is it we get into a debate of conscience over whether or not someone of no means is hustling us into giving "something for nothing", but rarely if ever give a second thought when those of great wealth do the same? Powerlessness? Acceptance of our "place on the food chain?" (As a line spoken by actor Murray Chaikin in the obscure flick "Northern Extreme" put it: "The one rule that governs the world is this; "big pigs eat first...").

Don't get me wrong- it was absolutely wonderful to be on the bandstand with you at Cipriani's the other week. You sounded great, and you're evidently thriving...

But.... Cipriani. The guy who ten years ago had to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving his workers a decent wage after locking them out for like what, a year? And who even after buying this big Wall Street building AND the famed Rainbow Room finally settles with the government for $10 million over a greater amount of taxes he tried to skate out of?

Weird, maybe. But these days I would have less misgivings about giving two bucks to a known drug addict as opposed to 50 cents to some anonymous "suit" trying to ("cough-cough-ahem") "legally" scam me out of 50 cents...

Posted by: Mike Spengler | Aug 28, 2007 6:45:11 PM

Hi Trep,

Great topic... I really enjoyed it. Thanks!

It sounds like you did the right thing to me.

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak. | Aug 28, 2007 7:35:58 PM

An article about beggars at the Kotel.

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1188197180133&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

Posted by: Karl Newman | Aug 29, 2007 11:58:18 AM

Mike, see my comment on the previous thread.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Aug 29, 2007 7:59:46 PM

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