*tap* *tap* Is this thing
Unaccustomed as I am
Screw it, I’m just going to start talking. That’s what blogs are for, right? The rest of the site, including bio and list o’ links, is on its way, honest.
Mitch Wagner has a post about Jon Carroll’s “Untied Way” that has generated some light (and a little heat) in the comments (see also the followup posts) and touched on some issues of concern to me. I find it difficult to say no to a direct request for help, and usually give a dollar or whatever change I happen to have to anyone who asks. I never really thought about con artists in Australia, where begging is far less common, but here in Portland OR I started running into the same faces, telling the same damn lies to wheedle money out of the marks. I decided that I was going to have to deal properly with begging (and associated chicanery) if I were going to live here, plus it really chafes my scrote to get had like that, so I started talking to people who work with the homeless — Central City Concern, a colleague who does outreach work with his church, and so on. The consensus was that vouchers, where available, are better than dollars, and that (as Gary Farber said in Mitch’s comments) most of the need in the US today is invisible to most of us who might be in a position to lend a hand. I don’t know what proportion of panhandlers are thieving bastards, but I suspect it’s not trivial, and with a large proportion of need not being represented by panhandlers and the chance of handing money to a parasite1, giving on the street simply does not represent an efficient use of my limited philanthropic funds. If it’s wrong not to help, it seems also (if somewhat less) wrong not to help as much as possible (within your means), especially if you do so just because an inefficient means of delivering superficial help is ready to hand, and even more especially if that inefficient means happens to have a pretty high feel-good factor.
For these reasons, I dislike Jon Carroll’s “Untied Way” idea. It smacks of “oh come on, it’s Christmas“, and if you are going to give away $200 (or just enough to hurt a little, whatever amount that may be), there are better ways to do it. (One might add, if one were sufficiently self-righteous, that those better ways do not offer a cheap, easy get-out-of-liberal-guilt-free card — after all, why distribute the $200? why not just hand the whole lot to the first panhandler you encounter? — but surely one is not such a po-faced Pecksniff as all that?)
The solution I initially favoured was to find and support local organisations that provide real help, and hand every panhandler a meal voucher and a small card listing contact details for those organisations (the Oregon Food Bank, Transition Projects, Central City Concern and Union Gospel Mission, to start with). This solution is far from perfect, though. If I am going to give on the street, then I am going to get had; all I can do is to avoid the scamsters as best I can and decide that it’s worth getting had at the remaining scam rate to be sure that I am not turning my face (my actual, real, right-there physical face) from genuine need. At one voucher ($2) per gift, I guess I will divest myself of between $500 and $1000 a year that way. What scam rate would render that no longer worthwhile? And in any case, per my argument above, should I not devote the whole amount to more efficient uses?
There’s another complication: even genuinely down-on-their luck recipients would mostly prefer money to vouchers, and not without reason. Free meals can be had fairly easily in most places, at least in sufficient quantity to prevent actual starvation. (In PDX, for example, see the links above, or you can earn the same meal as the voucher would pay for with fifteen minutes of work in the kitchen at Sisters of the Road cafe.) Vouchers don’t usually cover (although perhaps they should) things like soap and toothpaste. Equally importantly, IMO, discretionary funds mean agency and dignity in our moneycentric society. I have been, for reasons related to my visa, unable to draw a salary for over a year. My wife’s salary pays for all our needs, but it leaves very little over — and I have never felt so damned helpless in all my life. I have had, I suppose, a tiny hint of a little taste of poverty, and what stuck with me was the feeling of powerlessness. Against this argument, we can set the question of whether giving cash on the street encourages the parasites. It does seem to me that if most people carried meal vouchers, a lot of panhandling would stop; but then, most people aren’t going to carry vouchers, and as I said, there are some reasons for giving cash.
So, what to do? In the end, giving on the street seems to me to be an indulgence, at least in my case. I want to do it, because I do not like to refuse a request for help (and, OK, because it appeals to my image of myself as the kind of bloke who can spare a dollar for a bum), but I know that with a little effort I could do more good with that money. For now, my plan is to allocate some portion of my philanthropic budget to the local organisations I listed above, and to purchase meal vouchers or hand out cash out of the money I allocate to spending on myself. I could still do more with that money, but at least I am paying for my own indulgence and calling it by its right name.
1These people are thieves twice over, and beneath contempt: first they steal from each mark and then, much worse, inasmuch as they erode goodwill and contribute to compassion fatigue, they steal from the very people who most desperately need help.