Seems like everywhere we go these days--whether to the super market, to the corner store, to the gas station and other public places--someone has their hand out asking for spare change. I used to give from time to time until I realized these same able-bodied street-smart people were begging every time I saw them. It had become their lifestyle. So instead of handing out money, I began keeping flyers about certain community outreach programs in my car--programs that would perhaps help them to become gainfully employed--and handing them out when asked for money. In other words, rather than give them fish, I wanted to give them their own fishing rod. I would explain to them about the programs, and even gave bus fare to some who really seemed to be interested. I stopped doing that when those same folks would then began asking me for bus fare knowing full well they were not interested and had no intentions of going to the programs.
Some time ago when I worked downtown, there was a lady who used to push around a baby carriage, speaking very poor broken English, begging for money. One afternoon as I was walking I happened around a corner and here was that same lady speaking perfect English. She saw me and knowing I was on to her scheme, never asked me for money again. I warned people about her, and we soon found out she was part of a network of hustlers.
I was in a restaurant one night and a sad-sack-looking guy came in and just stood there looking at the menu. After I placed my order, he approached me and said he was a couple dollars short and wanted to buy some food. I gave him the money, and no sooner had I left and drove out of the parking lot, I spotted him on the corner with his sad-sack-looking comrades laughing it up; counting his money. He did not buy food. I tooted my horn...he looked at me, and I nodded with the okay-buddy-you-got-me-this-time look. His eyes turned away.
As I said, I used to give money from time to time, and when I did not feel like giving, my canned reply when asked was "not today." However, nowadays because my coldness has increased I flat-out reply "no," but here's the sad part: There may actually be some people with legitimate needs, but we've become overly wary of everyone because of the knuckleheads who are out to play us.
The other day, as I was going into the super market a young lady asked if I would buy her some chicken tenders from the Deli department. She was crouched against the wall and bundled up because of the chilly weather. I gently replied, "Sorry, not today," but when I went inside I thought, "Wait a minute, she asked for food, not money." So I went over to the Deli to see how much the cost would be. Before I made a purchase, I went outside to let the woman know I was going to buy the food for her, but she was gone. I looked around for her, but it's as if she had vanished into thin air. I felt really bad and wished I had not been so hasty to miss an opportunity to help someone who may have truly been in need.
It's a sad state of affairs when we as a society have become so desensitized; so overly skeptical and uneasy about lending a helping hand to our fellow man. It's even sadder that where loitering is prohibited, there is little or no public outcry and law enforcement. This is not an indictment against the homeless, but rather those same familiar, annoying, unkempt, able-bodied, street-smart hustling folks who are not homeless, and who choose to hang out from day to day as undignified common beggars, instead of making an effort to make an honest living. It is also not my intention to discourage giving, but to be more discerning about it. If nothing else we should support our local churches and charity organizations. The hustlers can run down some of the most incredible stories--not limited to just spare change--but even if "Mr. Big Employer" is not hiring, there is always a lawn to be mowed, a fence to be painted, windows to be washed or something. Get a grip folks! Straighten up and fly right! Where's your sense of service and duty? Clean yourselves up; suit up; and show up. There is opportunity out there somewhere that will help you to regain your pride, self-respect, and dignity.
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Author of "Things Are Gettin' Outta Hand" (Steuben Pub) www.amazon.com. Available at Smiley's Bookstore in Carson CA, Skylight Books, Los Angeles, and Chaucer's in Santa Barbara CA. Visit the author at www.larrybuford.com. (213) 220-8101