How do you respond to beggars? I had to answer this question on a dark Las Vegas street. I was searching for a drug store. The lady at the convenience store assured me the CVS was only two blocks away.
I set off at dusk, thinking the CVS was close. It turned out to be 5 long blocks away. I was an obvious target – a well-dressed single white female. A woman came up to me and said, “Can you help me?” She was clearly looking for money. In those few seconds while I tried to decide how to respond, a number of thoughts went through my head.
Don’t respond to beggars, I learned
“Don’t respond to beggars”, my parents taught me. “Don’t look at them or acknowledge them” was the message. The message was reinforced when I met my husband, who was born in India, and went on trips with him to India.
“If you give anyone money you will be mobbed.” My oldest son unintentionally tested this theory, against all admonitions. When he was outside a temple in Chennai, he gave a 20 rupee note to a beggar, and then hopped into his cousin’s car. The car was surrounded by a mob of people who climbed on the hood and trunk, pressed their faces into the windshield, and demanded more money. They finally left when it became clear that my son had no more money.
“Beggars want money for drugs or alcohol”, my parents taught me. One day I finished a morning of exhibiting at an attorney conference in Philadelphia. I was stopped by a beggar at the threshold of a sandwich shop. I refused his request for money, and as I stood in line at the shop, I came up with a different plan.
When I ordered my sandwich, I got an identical one for him. After picking out a bottle of juice from the case, I handed the beggar the sandwich and juice on my way out the door. As I drove away, I heard sirens, but thought nothing more about it.
The next day, one of my friends called and said, “You caused a lot of trouble, Pat.” He’d watched the whole thing from across the street. The beggar went into the sandwich shop, claimed the meat in the sandwich was bad, and asked for “his” money back. He got belligerent, which caused the owner to call the police, which caused the sirens as the police chased him through the streets of Philadelphia. I have never bought a meal for a beggar since.
When the woman asked me for money in Las Vegas, I shook my head and kept walking. Rather than walk back on that now completely dark street, I took a cab back to my hotel. But I thought of my younger son.
When we were on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum one time, a beggar approached us. The adults immediately said “No”, but my younger son opened up his wallet and unzipped the change compartment. He gave the beggar all of his coins. My husband became angry and demanded to know why he did that.
He said, “Dad, he needed the money more than I did.”
How can you argue with that? How do you respond to beggars?
Pat Iyer MSN RN LNCC is president of The Pat Iyer Group.