The Beggar Dilemma – To Give or Not to Give (And What)


You are walking on the street, going about your business, your stomach content, your rent and bills paid, money in your purse, smartphone in your pocket, and you see a beggar – an old bearded man, all dingy and moldy, or a child in rags, or a woman with a pitifully uncanny expression or her face, or perhaps some disabled person. What do you do? What should you do?

You don’t like the smell and you walk by.

Or the sight makes you uneasy and you walk by.

Or you deplore their poverty and walk by.

Or you think they have done something wrong and deserve their faith and you walk by.

Or you think it’s not their fault and pity them but think there’s nothing you can do and you walk by.

Or you think that answering the call to action on the cardboard he or she carries – usually asking for money – won’t really solve his or her problem, and you walk by.

Or you are simply in a hurry and you walk by.

Or you don’t walk by at all. You pause and think for a moment.

That he or she is there is (probably) not your fault, except (perhaps) if you believe strongly in collective guilt and how the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can unleash a hurricane on the other side of the globe.

That he or she is not really your responsibility is (probably) correct, though of course if we return to notions of collective guilt…

The fact of the matter is that if you walk by, you have nothing to lose and nothing to gain.

If you give him or her something, on the other hand, you do have something to lose: money and time as well.

But don’t you have something to gain, too?

A smile? An earnest thank you?

Or maybe only a frown, which you may well get if you give him or her coins, while your fashionable dress suggests you are a person of quality, with money in the bank, and time for blogs such as mine.

So, rationally speaking, walking by makes sense, in most cases, at least.

But we are not only rational, we are also human.

For my part, Sunday, when returning home from the cinema, I came upon a homeless person (without a cardboard), I took from my grocery bag (which contained tea and fruit) an apple and handed it to him.

He took it and nodded his politely.

Bucharest is full of homeless persons – I have long thought about what one should do when encountering one. I have considered the matter from a philosophical, rational, as well as humane perspective.

I think that the best thing to do, in most cases at least, is give them food. It’s healthy and it shows concern. If you can listen to them as well, that’s even better.

Money, it seems to me, often does them more harm than good, as many of them buy drink or cigarettes with it. Not all of them of course, and if they have an honest face, money is preferable to food. But generally speaking, food is, in my opinion, better.

That apple of mine hasn’t solved the beggar’s problems, but it has given his life a different taste, for a little while, and if I mentioned it here it was not to brag with my good deeds, for I often feel I don’t do enough for my community, but to have the opportunity to ask you the following question…

What do you do when you come upon a beggar or a homeless person?

21 thoughts on “The Beggar Dilemma – To Give or Not to Give (And What)

  1. On my way to school, I often encounter homeless people but with a slightly heavier push on the gas pedal, my dad flashes past them and they are now in my unforgiving memory. I sometimes wonder how they got there and how long have they been there. I haven’t had the courage to hand them food or money yet. It’s a shame.

    Actually, as I write this in the passenger seat of my fathers car, I see a bearded, homeless man walking in between cars out of my peripheral vision. I wish I had the courage to give him something. I feel terrible as the light has just turned green and we leave him.

  2. The same dilemna each time I see a beggar. Sometimes I feel they could do something productive and earn instead of begging. Other times I feel afraid of getting too close to them, ’cause there are many who are faking it, and their intentions aren’t very good.

    Maybe it’s selfish that I avoid them mostly. But I offer money to all those who are willing to work and earn for themselves. Yes, some of them are incapable of working, and the dilemna gets back to me at such times.
    Offering food seems to be a good idea, I think I’ll adopt that from now on. 🙂

  3. I’ve given apples, water, food, clothing, and for many years ran with the homeless. In most cases they are no different than you and I, and the good fortune to be able to give a bit of myself to someone less fortunate is invigorating in its own right. It’s been written that we are all one disaster away Crome homelessness.

  4. I usually walk by, but I have also given some food before after seeing that a friend of mine doing it. For me, it’s also the best thing to do.

    But then I only rarely walk around with some food and I don’t really like digging my wallet out from wherever it is so I too often just pass them with some guilt in my mind (also when I come across a street musician).

    Another friend of mine ALWAYS gives them some money, even when he’s pretty sure that the person isn’t going to use it for food. I can’t really bring myself to be so generous but I do admire his attitude.

    Your post just reminded me that I’ve wanted to put some coins into my pockets for exactly this occasion since forever – I’m going to do that now, thank you.

    I love your thought provoking posts and have wondered for a while from where you are – I’m so surprised you’re from Romania (I always thought you’re French speaking, I guess because of the hat, haha)! It’s in my top 10 list of countries I want to visit soon since I have a friend from Cluj 🙂 Have a great week!

    1. Ah, street musicians! They are not that common here in Romania, but one does find them now and then, in the more important subway passages or in the old town in Bucharest. I like to stop by and listen to them, and I do give them money… It’s so wonderful to “stumble upon” live music like that, to unplug your headphones and listen to them, especially since there’s often a sadness behind even their more uplifting tunes…

      It’s because of thoughtful, multi-paragraph comments such as yours that I enjoy posting here. 🙂

      If you visit Romania, do let me know and perhaps we can go on a photographic walk through Bucharest. I myself have picked up a camera some time ago… I wonder, Monika, do you have a flickr page?

      1. Sorry for answering so late and thank you for your kind reply, I didn’t really expect it and appreciate it a lot 🙂 You seem to belong to a rather rare kind of people (or people in Romania are a bit different than here) because here, hardly anyones stops to listen to a musician in the train station, we’re all to worried about getting to our destination as soon as possible. I guess I have to stop the next time as well, at least to see if I also notice the subliminal sadness you hear.

        I love your idea, it sounds great and I hope we can make it work 🙂 I saw your photos and like the way you perceive the world. Unfortunately I don’t have a flickr page (yet)..

        Have a nice day 🙂

  5. If there is a cafe close by I will ask if they want a sandwich and a drink and bring it out for them. I won’t take them into the cafe as I’m sure the owner wouldn’t appreciate it. When the homeless person is young I’m less likely to give money as I don’t want to help support a drug habit as the drugs to help get rid of the habit are free anyway. If the person is clean and not too smelly I may take them to the cafe and sit with them while they eat. If they want to talk I listen.
    If they’re in a busy place and they don’t want food I give small denomination coins as I’m not wanting to support a lifestyle and it’s likely others will have donated too.
    There are plenty of charities trying to help the homeless in the UK. Willing to give clothes, help find hostel beds, offer food and blankets at night, try to sort out benefits that it is hard to decide who is a genuine case sometimes.
    Not an easy question to have asked.

  6. I once picked up a hitchhiker who than became aggressive. I told him we would stop at a McDonald’s and I gave him a ten to go inside and buy us some burgers. He ran in and I drove off. I figured ten dollars was worth my life.

  7. the sight makes you uneasy and I just walk by. I find myself unable to stand there and look at their faces. It makes my heart cry in pain seeing those poor troubled faces.

  8. You’re right about the importance of listening. That’s probably the greatest gift you can give a person on the fringes of life. I believe it’s about acknowledging the person’s humanity.

  9. Many are genuine. I had a friend once. His wife divorced him and took him for almost everything he had, and he just dropped out of sight. A mutual acquaintance claims to have seen him on Kings Cross Station one night. Others are enterprising enough to sell copies of the ‘Big Issue’ magazine, and that helps pave the way back for many. When I was at drama school a fellow student had a ‘destitute kit’ he donned on Saturdays. He made quite a reasonable sum from begging, and many do. It isn’t always genuine, the impoverished image. Some are mentally ill. Those with personality disorders who are constantly robbed by the system tend to go hobo, and those, particularly, I want to help. Yes, I give money. I buy the ‘Big Issue’ too, though I see it less, these days. I must admit I haven’t given food in the past. I guess I haven’t really thought enough about it. I will now!

  10. Finding, a real needy person is very difficult because many baggers has made this work own business.
    Every day, I goes for out then see many baggers but I don’t see any person, who is really a facing difficulties but they enjoy bagging.

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