Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Truly Needy

You see a lot of beggars in New York City but you try not to think too much about them, and most of the time you assume they’re really not that needy. On the subway, you have the theatrical beggars who go through a whole speech presented in impressive stentorian tone about how they don’t want to bother anyone but they haven’t eaten properly in a long time and are just looking for a few cents to keep them going. They make their way through the train and usually gather up a few bucks. But not one seems genuinely hungry.

Then the other day we ran into a fellow who didn’t launch into a well prepared speech or strut ostentatiously through the middle aisle, but was sort of doubled over, mumbling toward the floor that he was really hungry and needed something to eat. We handed him a banana and were stunned to see him grab it and literally smash it into his mouth, quickly gulping it down his throat. This man wasn’t posing but was truly hungry! Frozen in my thoughts and with my own eyes averted to the floor from embarrassment, I wondered again about the laws discouraging the giving of money on the street. Better it should go to a homeless shelter or an organized charity designed to do some good rather than directly to someone who only appears to be needy and may end up using it for drugs or alcohol. Was this person the exception and should he be given a handout after all? But when I looked up he had moved on to the next coach in search of anything he could find, maybe a real payoff that would allow him to stop thinking about food just for a short while.


  1. Homelessness is on the rise, or it certainly seems so based on my decidedly unscientific personal survey of downtown San Diego. And I have to say that there is something wrong when our wealthy nation cannot provide simple shelter and sanitation for those who want it but, for whatever reason, have lost access. But I'm not so sure about hungar. That is, most of the homeless I see look well fed and I know there are a lot of places to get a free meal within blocks of my building. I'm more worried about children in economically borderline familes. I participate in a federal food give away that occurs once a month in a nearby neighborhood. The lines are getting longer..... It's sad to see the homeless but it's unconcionable for people in our nation to be hungry.

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  3. In the leadership class I took with Robert Reich last year, he talked a lot about the way we insulate ourselves from things like people begging on the street. He talked about how we do need the insulation (otherwise we wouldn't be able to function), but that is makes it that much more difficult to "do the work" of making social change.
    I've been thinking about this a lot as I make my way down the not-yet-gentrified section of 24th Street in the Mission on my way to work at San Francisco General Hospital each morning. Just this morning, I didn't give money to a man on the train who was trying to collect six dollars to get some breakfast. I thought I'd gotten used to saying no, but I guess the fact that I remember how much he wanted suggests otherwise.

    [just fixing some typos. . . ]