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Responding to Beggars


In the late 70s, a beggar outside Harvard Square station asked for a quarter to take the subway. I gave him one. As I walked down the stairs I noticed that he was not coming along. Instead he was asking another person for a quarter to take the subway. I looked at him for a minute to show him I knew he had lied to me.

When beggars say they want money to take the train home, or to get some food, they may be telling the truth, or they may be lying. I had heard people say that pandhandlers lied, but now I knew for certain. I did not want to be an easy mark for liars, so I decided never to give money to a beggar.

However, I did not want to become someone who is of no help to people who are telling the truth. So I came up with a way to separate the honest beggars from the liars.

When a beggar asks me for money, I never give money. But if he refers to food or eating, I offer to give him food instead.

About half the time, the beggar mumbles an excuse and declines the offer. I figure those are the ones who were lying.

About half the time, the beggar accepts this offer. So we go to a nearby store (I choose which). I invite her to choose the food, within limits (for instance, I won't buy bottled beverages, since anyone can get water to drink). I pay for it and give it to her. This typically costs several dollars, but I don't mind; I am glad to give it since I know it is a good cause. Since this only occurs occasionally, the expense is not significant.

If a beggar asks for money to take a bus or subway train, I do not give him money. Instead I offer to pay his fare directly. I will walk a few blocks and wait a few minutes to do this, unless I am in a hurry. If I had responded thus to the lying panhandler at Harvard Square, he would not have succeeded in tricking me. But if he had been honest, I would have helped him.

This is what I do in the US, where I understand the situation enough to judge what to do. In a foreign country, where I am just passing through, I don't give to beggars, because I don't understand the local situation well enough to figure out what I should do. If I were living there, I would study the problem and come up with a response.

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