"Spare Change?"

Robert L. Karash

People who walk through the streets in major cities and in other places frequently hear cries of “Spare Change?” or “Can anyone spare some change?”. These requests usually come from someone who is ostensibly homeless or down on their luck in life. How a society-at-large reacts to this plea is an indication of the depth and extent of a larger problem and challenge.

Most people in the world are decent and charitable in their hearts so the first knee-jerk response is to give something to help. But there’s a problem. There are so many people with a cup asking for help that one is overwhelmed and afraid of their motives. Will the money be used for alcohol? Or a meal? For bus or cab fare? Will it be used for a room for the night? Potential philanthropists are confused by both motivation and outcome.

As a result, most people, despite their inner good intentions, will pass by the person asking for money. In fact, displays of need are so overwhelming in some cities that pedestrians have to treat the person as if he were not there. This is very sad for society, for the person legitimately asking for help, and for the passerby, who, in his heart of hearts, would truly like to help. In essence, everyone loses by the overwhelming nature of the tense situation.

The fact is that most homeless people do not hold a cup on the street and ask for money. In fact, the great majority do not. Also, it is true that some people who are soliciting money are hustlers, and not truly homeless or afflicted. They just have some ulterior motive for getting the money.

Some people asking for money don’t verbalize it. Instead, they just sit there in the street with cardboard signs whose petitions read “I lost my home need money” and the like. Or these individuals might just sit there with an extended arm, hand, and cup, saying nothing and advertising nothing but just implicitly asking for money to be given to them.
The problem is that people don’t know what they are giving for or to whom they are giving.

If someone says “Spare change for a meal?” and one offers to take the person to a fast food place for a burger, yet the person refuses, much suspicion is aroused. Maybe the person didn’t want a meal after all, and was just hustling for who knows what. So the charitable giver wanted to help but the help was refused. Perhaps it was because the petitioner was just street hustling or because the petitioner just wanted to get a meal later, alone. One can’t know. But the tragedy is that the experiment in charity has failed.

Philosophers, religious leaders, and ethicists will teach us that, in theory, Charity should be as blind as Justice. That is, we should give without questioning why the person is asking for it. This is the most pure kind of charity or giving help. But it’s hard to do this when there are so many asking for a handout. And the other issue is whether people asking for help are truly in need or just front line hustlers. So people are forced into either ignoring the petitioner; if they give at all, they give sparsely.

The larger issue to be dealt with is, frankly, how does a person help the needy, especially the homeless, since this it now represents a worldwide problem for modern societies. People want to help. People want to rid the world of homelessness and suffering. Even Scrooge gave in at the end of Dickens’ novel. So what does one do?
It’s all about choices.

The best charity is always done with one’s own hands and feet and heart, up close and personal. But not everyone can do this or is ready to do it quite that way.

A person can indeed put money in the tin cup, help the person in yet another way right there and then, or do something else in a different setting at a later time to help the larger situation.

Charity doesn’t necessarily have to involve a handout. One can engage the petitioner, talk with him, make sure he knows that his existence and worth are affirmed and acknowledged, maybe just by having a five minute conversation with him. This is the surprising fact: most homeless people and people in need find it far more heartwarming, worthy, and useful for someone to acknowledge that they exist and not just toss a quarter in the cup and zoom by. This, a conversation, is the ultimate gift of treating a person who’s down and out in the street as a peer human being.

This tack might very well not work if the petitioner is a hustler, fraud, or scam artist and not actually homeless or needy. In such a case time is money, conversation is useless, and the focus is only on economics.

Off of the street, a place where one may or may not feel comfortable to give, converse or advise, people can otherwise donate used clothes, personal items, food, and the like to shelters and organizations who will get them directly to the homeless. It’s not like giving someone your coat off your back but it’s the next best thing.

Another way is to give time to help in a structured setting, like in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, settlement house, or day center. Maybe one can help someone by teaching them how to use a computer or email, giving English lessons, helping them get clothes from donation centers, working with them in the art programs, or writing a resume for them. This is as good as gold. It’s direct help, one on one, in a safe setting off the street.

Yet another way is to simply give money to a charitable organization which specifically helps the homeless and needy. This is less direct and anonymous but it can work. One has to be careful that the organization itself is effective in their administration of charity. Some organizations are just not effective, gentle, or compassionate and the poor avoid these at all costs, even to their own disadvantage. Some are stymied with bureaucracies that make it hard for a homeless person to even get a pair of socks to replace his wet ones after being out in the soaking rain all day. Perhaps socks are only given out on Thursdays, but the need is on Wednesday.

In reality, the best of both worlds is to volunteer at different places that help the homeless and economically disadvantaged and see for yourself who is doing a good job on the front lines. This will allow you to determine where and how people are treated with dignity and respect and where they are not.

In any case, doing something is always better than the alternative—to do nothing at all, to treat the needy as nonexistent, is a terrible loss for society, for a potential donor, and for the needy person himself.

There’s a saying that “a busy person can always find time” which seems paradoxical until we realize that it’s mostly true. A busy person knows he has exactly three minutes available in his printed schedule after 2pm and can listen for those minutes. So we can maximize brief windows of time. This is how modern life is. We can recite a million clever sayings and aphorisms, but if someone is determined to help, he will help. If he’s not interested, then he’ll make excuses and waffle about it, doing nothing.

There is a stencil graffiti which can be seen in many cities around the world which is said to have been drawn in Australia by a street artist. It shows a homeless person sitting on the street, with a cup in front of him, not in his hand asking for money. The cup is not used but present. The needy person holds a sign which simply says “KEEP YOUR COINS. I WANT CHANGE”. That is, he wants change in his life for the better and change in society’s attitude to his plight. A few coins in his cup won’t do this, as this image succinctly reminds us.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, as the saying goes. We are beckoned not to ignore, but to do something, even if the situation seems to be overwhelming. There is always a way to help that can precipitate good effects for everyone involved.

Robert L. Karash is a semi-retired industrial Computer Scientist and university researcher and lecturer. He lives in Boston and gives part of his time to helping those in need through compassion, education, and empowerment.