Revisting the Debate on Giving Money to Beggars
One of the most widely-read essays ever posted here appeared about a year ago. It was titled: SHOULD YOU GIVE MONEY TO STREET BEGGARS?
Heated debate on this topic continues. I suspect this is because we’ve all seen incidents of begging on our streets. Beggars have become part of the landscape in most cities and many neighborhoods. We’ve all formed opinions based on different perceptions and values.
Now, even more people are out there begging, especially on street corners. I’d go so far as to say this “problem” has become an epidemic here in Las Vegas.
This is no exaggeration. Yesterday, I ran a few errands and drove a total of 15 miles around the west side of Las Vegas. Within 90 minutes, I counted 11 beggars. Two busy intersections had multiple beggars working the street, one from each direction.
Begging works, I suppose. It must be worthwhile, because so many people are now doing it. If the number of street beggars is increasing, this reveals one of two things — (1) either more people are now desperately in need, or (2) begging is an easy way to make a quick buck (and beats working a real job), and more people have caught onto this fact.
I’m sympathetic to the working poor. One of the symptoms of a sick society is an underclass that’s increasing in size, rather than decreasing. In a society with economic justice, more people find and take avenues of upward mobility — not less. The obscenely low federal minimum wage that’s lagged behind the rest of the industrialized world for more than a decade has certainly contributed to a larger underclass, with more people living at a base level of subsistence than ever before. So when street begging becomes more expedient than working a job, something’s gone terribly wrong. When pride and self-awareness no longer matter to so many people, we’ve got a huge problem. So much for the “free-market” providing solutions. Seventy-eight percent of the nation’s wealth in the hands of 10 percent of the population isn’t a solution. It’s a vulgarity.
However, the trouble with the “bad economy” argument is that research shows little or no correlation between the number and frequency of beggars and economic conditions. For instance, there are far more beggars in Las Vegas than Detroit. Furthermore, economic conditions have improved over a few years ago (case in point: the rate of unemployment has declined) — yet, there seem to be more beggars. Accordingly, I think it’s a fair assumption that the vast majority of those with proverbial tin cups (now cardboard signs — which is society’s current appendage of humility) are either con artists or people with serious mental illnesses. No doubt, both classes are tied closely to drug/alcohol abuse and dependency.
Some suggest ignoring beggars if you don’t want to deal with them. That sounds simple enough. However, ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. Ignoring someone who comes right up to your face isn’t easy to do when so many of the major intersections here in town are patrolled by men (and increasingly women) holding up signs and weaving in and out between rows of traffic camped at red lights who are captive to their plight. Many of us find this unacceptable. Moreover, street begging — what’s becoming more and more like street hustling — is bad for communities. It’s annoying enough to be targeted by con artists each time you log on and check your e-mail or click on a banner ad. Now, many of us can’t even drive or walk down the street without getting pinched by a hustler.
I think we all want to help those in need. If someone is truly homeless or starving, I believe most of us would contribute to a stranger. A dollar or two won’t be missed by any of us. But it could make a real difference, at least for a day, in the life of someone who is struggling badly and needs a handout.
The proliferation of street begging is also clearly symptomatic of a national mental health crisis. If economic inequality in this country is a vulgarity, then the way we’re dealing with the mentally ill in America is a national disgrace beyond human comprehension. Then again, the mentally ill don’t vote, so who cares?
The problem is — we don’t know fact from fiction. We can’t differentiate between those who are truly victims of our rigged economic system which stacks the deck against the poor versus scam artists who prey upon the kindness of strangers. Frankly, I find this kind of charlatanism despicable. Pretending to be homeless while actually being relatively well off deserves our collective ire and outrage. These people are scum.
Here in Las Vegas, street begging has increasingly become the focus of investigative journalism. Two items I recently came across concluded that the vast majority of people hustling at local intersections are not only scamming people. They are increasingly linked to sophisticated networks of hustlers. Some even work in teams and have drug dealers running the goods between various sections of town.
Here’s one comment I received a few days ago from a Las Vegas woman. I’ll leave readers with the following text which has been slighted edited for clarity:
I know someone personally who lives in Boca Park in Las Vegas (a wealthy area of the city). He chooses to be a panhandler.
I am a recovering addict for many years and proud of it. I live a dignified life. Because I have been in a 12-step program for many years, I have learned first-hand what is really going on, and it’s not pretty.
My boyfriend from many years ago now lives at Boca Park, holding up a sign for help. He makes about $40,000 per year. No joke! They have a system. There are about five people surrounding the area. They work as teams. They make about $400 per day and they all have cell phones. They call their drug dealer and he delivers the heroin to them daily. This is happening as we speak.
They choose to live on the streets. They are all on dangerous drugs and the people in our communities are oblivious to what’s really happening. These panhandlers even have food stamps. As a matter of fact, they eat at Vons (grocery store) located on Fort Apache and Charleston every night after they “work.” They have regulars too.
I have tried to help my ex and I have let go. But I want the public to know the truth. They are handed 20-dollar bills regularly. My ex makes a fortune and it all goes to heroin. He was clean for one year last year. That’s when he told me 90 percent of homeless people are drug addicts and 10 percent mentally ill. You think Boca Park is classy? Think again.
As a society we are enabling drug addicts to live comfortably on the streets. They have camp sights with blankets and pillows (this is the reality) hidden, and they have clothes, food, and just a real bad case of being dope sick. Some even have real homes. Frankly, it makes me so angry.
In my opinion, save your money and donate to women and children who have broken homes trying to survive in shelters. Donate food. Donate clothes and toys to innocent children and battered women trying to find their way. Let’s stop enabling the drug addicts unwilling to get help.
They are playing you as the fool.
I think this letter leaves us with some very constructive advice. Let’s give money, clothes, food, and our time — but let’s make sure it’s going to those who really need it and won’t abuse our best intentions.
So, what can we do? Donate to shelters. Collect food and clothes, which can’t be used for drugs and alcohol. Volunteer our time. Perhaps most important — let’s help spread the word to stop giving money on street corners and intersections. We aren’t helping these people. We’re enabling them.
I believe good people want to make a difference. The challenge is in knowing how to do this. Let’s continue to give — but give wisely.