Lucia Nardo examines her own conscience about beggars, and relfects on how her son reacts to them.
Like many people I’ve talked with, I’m uncomfortable around beggars. The reasons vary but can include guilt, a sense of powerlessness, personal objections and general fear of those who ‘aren’t like us.’
How to respond to begging is a question often asked but rarely answered definitively. A Google search results in hundreds of articles on definitions of beggars, how different faiths should treat beggars according to their teachings, ‘false’ beggars, child beggars; the list is endless.
I discussed this issue with a friend while we sat in an unfamiliar café l in a tree-lined street of an affluent suburb.
As we talked, I glanced out the window and noticed a man—dirty clothed, pronounced limp—pushing a supermarket trolley ahead of him, laden with what were probably his worldly possessions.
While unexpected in that setting, he didn’t seem entirely out of place. These days, many people are a pay day away from destitution. Any one of us could end up calling the street home. Throw in mental illness, addiction, social isolation and the chances increase. The slide can be a rapid one.
I watched the man navigate the footpath, reminded of an anecdote my son related a few weeks earlier. After a long history resulting with a chronic health issue, he was desperate for a chance at a better education.
Through this disability, he has experienced injustice and discrimination, arising from ignorance and fear. As a result, he’s developed a strong sense of justice and deep empathy.
Now, he studies welfare services at TAFE. Though I worry about how he will cope in a field where he’ll encounter poverty, disengagement, domestic violence, addiction and the myriad social ills that plague humankind, it makes perfect sense that he’s chosen to do what he’s doing.
As part of his studies, he attended the Melbourne Children’s Court. In one case, a distraught mother begged for help for her son who had a long list of behavioral and social problems. In her frustration, she hurled abuse at the Court and its officers. Police came in to remove her but the magistrate stopped them, saying the mother had every right to vent in the face of an under-resourced system and her thwarted efforts to get help for the boy before he got to this place. In other circumstances, my son noted, he easily have been in this boy’s position.
As he left the court, he noticed a man sitting on the footpath with a sign that read ‘homeless and hopeless.’ How was he to know if this man was genuine?
My son has little money himself. Torn between wanting to help and not wanting to be taken advantage of, his response was practical. He bought two bottles of water; one for himself and one for the homeless man. Then, he sat with the man on the footpath and asked him about his life.
I could not have done that. I fall into that fearful, restrained majority. It is true that not all beggars and are homeless, and not all homeless people beg.
It remains a complex societal issue. But I realize that we need to revisit how we construe ‘the beggar.’ To move from making the individual entirely responsible for their own conditions, instead of seeing the social circumstances that underpin their desperation.
Since hearing that anecdote, I’ve reflected on begging from the perspective of a deeper spiritual call: one of wanting to be seen and heard, of needing acknowledgment, of having humanity and dignity restored.
At some level my son had begged for a chance to be seen beyond his disability. The mother had begged for options for her son before he becomes entrenched into the maze of the court system. The homeless man had begged for hope. They thirsted, perhaps for different things, but they all thirsted.
I’ve learned a lesson from my son. Do what you can with what you have. I ponder the question: in the face of confronting poverty and desperation, could I find it in me to supply that bottle of water? I’d like to thinks so. Perhaps that small beginning would help quell the deep thirst that comes with being human.
Lucia Nardo is a Melbourne-based writer who teaches Professional Writing and Editing at Victoria University.