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How to respond to beggars | When people beg for money
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Exercising the Benefit of Doubt

January 9, 2012

A few days ago I was loading bags of groceries into the back of my car when I hear a tiny voice say “excuse me” from across the parking lot. I looked up and saw a dark haired woman approaching me. I knew instantly she was going to ask me for money. I have been asked in this same parking lot before by a woman who didn’t say anything but held a postcard sized note in front of me that read something about not being able to speak English and needing help. I smiled politely and shook my head “no” and left feeling guilty because it’s not in my nature not to want to help someone. What’s a couple bucks, I wondered.

mother-and-child-with-cup-in-hard-asking-for-handout
But today was different. The woman approaching me cradled a baby no older than four or five months in her arm and an empty Dr. Brown’s bottle in her left hand. I don’t remember the exact words she said other than “milk for my baby.” My own daughter was still in the cart. I looked down at my handbag and saw a five dollar bill peeking out of my opened wallet. I watched as she shoved it into the right pocket of her black jeans and turn away.

I shut the back of my car and loaded my girl into her car seat. I went to ditch the cart and saw the woman at the driver’s door of a man getting out of his family van. I stopped in my tracks and could hear him ask “what?” in response to her request. She stood her ground as he unfastened his three kids from the van. I couldn’t figure out why she kept standing there. The man’s body language clearly showed he hadn’t planned on giving her anything. His wife came around the van from the passenger side to help with the kids and the woman asked again. I saw the wife, puzzled, look at the woman and then at her husband who was now headed toward the market. He barked “let’s go” to his family and just like that the woman was gone too.

I felt duped.

I gave her enough to buy a quart of milk and there she was walking further and further away from the grocery store. I got into my car and had the urge to stalk her through the parking lot. I wanted to see where she went. Instead, I said to myself that I should just exercise the benefit of doubt and with that I drove home.

photo source

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

kathleen January 9, 2012 at 7:53 am

Were you at Ralph’s? I saw a woman with a sleeping baby girl in a stroller there a few days ago with a small cardboard sign, stopping people as they went in and out, and my husband said he’s seen her in front of Trader Joe’s before.

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Wendy January 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Hey Kathleen, thanks for commenting. It was actually in the parking lot of Sprouts (the old Henry’s) on La Paz. It’s likely it could be the same woman. Or sadly, another one.

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Mom January 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

I think you did the right thing by trying to help. But don’t feel bad about yourself if the next time you say No. There are plenty of community services that individuals in need can count on. Some of these folks just make a living off begging for cash. Mike tells stories of getting hit up for cash almost everyday down in Long Beach while eating his lunch in his car at any local fast food joint. They first say that they are hungry, but when you offer them a hamburger they turn it down looking for a cash hand out for their next beer or hit of crack. I don’t think he’s encountered a women with a child and empty baby bottle that would be pretty difficult for anyone to ignore.

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Wendy January 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm

That’s my worry is that I’m feeding someone’s addiction. Though I don’t think that’s the case with this particular incident. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

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Jennifer January 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

This has happened to me before too. Usually my aura puts off a “don’t even ask” feel, but every once in awhile someone will try to punch through it. I think if you gave her the money it was because you felt like you needed to and that is never the wrong thing to do. Maybe she really will use the money for her baby. You never know.

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Wendy January 9, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I just couldn’t deny this woman with her baby while my own child was sitting there. She certainly knew her target audience!

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Shari January 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

I lived in New York City and had this happen to me multiple times in multiple ways on a daily basis. If i gave money to everyone that needed some, I’d be broke. I once handed someone begging for food, my lunch bag. I saw them toss it on the ground when I looked back. So I’m cynical now. It’s part of my nature. That’s all I’m saying.

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Wendy January 10, 2012 at 10:27 am

I hear you about being cynical. There’s a small part of me that feels the same way.

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Christina {Chrissy} Berry January 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm

A couple of years ago a local news station did a story and exposed that some crazy percentage of “beggars” around the Indianapolis metropolitan area were, in fact, not poor or homeless at all. They were basically regular people making a living out of pan-handling.

Like you, I felt duped because I never, NEVER say no to a street person asking me for money. If I don’t have cash and I pull up to an intersection where someone is pan-handling, I’ll give them a bottle of water or even the lunch I’m bringing from home. Lord help me if they’ve got a dog or a child with them.

Here’s what I think, Wendy. If you feel compelled to help someone, you should. You’re doing the right thing, even if they’re really not in need. If they’re duping you, that’s on them. They’re the ones who’ll have to answer for it someday.

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Wendy January 10, 2012 at 10:28 am

OMG, a person with a dog kills me. Always. And to be honest, I usually worry more about the dog than the person.

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Christina {Chrissy} Berry January 10, 2012 at 10:30 am

Lol, me too.

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Mama Bub January 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Friend, you have read my mind. Around the holidays, you couldn’t leave a store without being met by someone with a table and a sign asking for money. Here’s the thing, I don’t give money to people on the street. Because I’m an ass. Listen, we make charitable donations, and we give our time to organizations that are important to us. I would like to give individuals with their children the benefit of the doubt, and I would like to believe that people with their table and their sign are legit, but I am a skeptic. Even Trader Joe’s has a sign that says to ignore them with any guilt! If Trader Joe’s says it, it must be true! But seriously, I never know what to do in these situations. You’re nicer than I am, I can tell you that.

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Denise January 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I agree, if you felt compelled to help than you should feel good you did it and not thinking about it and wondering what happened. I usually try to give people food or bottled water or something instead of money (the homeless man on my way home from work always seems appreciative of dinner but maybe I’m being duped too). Christmas Eve there was a couple by my parents grocery store and I gave them money (it was Christmas Eve for goodness sake!). If I am really moved by something, I feel better erring on the side of feeling that I helped and if I am being duped, then I agree with Christina, they are the ones that, someday, will have to answer for scamming people.

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Galit Breen January 10, 2012 at 4:57 am

That’s such a tough one. I’ve been there, too, and have felt wrong whatever choice I’ve made.

{Really interesting post topic!}

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Gina January 10, 2012 at 10:13 pm

I think you did the right thing, and you should feel good knowing you did the right thing. This is the first time I have been to your blog (found it on twitter) so I am not sure if you are relgious or not, but I was always taught if you have it to give, give, that’s the right thing to do (although some will disagree with me) it is then up to the person who is asking for the money to do the right thing. Kudos to you!

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Heather January 11, 2012 at 10:51 am

This just happened to me yesterday, but I was in the drive thru of EPL and a man came up to my car window – it was a CREEPY feeling. But he said he was hungry and asked for me to get him some food. Instead I offered him the contents of my ashtray, which was about $3-4, enough to get a meal at one of the fast food joints around. I just didn’t want him hanging around my car with the kids inside. I saw a very similar program that Christina mentioned in her comment, except it was in San Francisco. There are professional pan handlers out there who live modestly. I don’t always give when I am approached, but, like you, I exercise the benefit of the doubt in some cases. It’s not for me to judge, and if they use the money for the next high, they’ll answer to that, not me.

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MommaKiss January 17, 2012 at 8:22 am

Things like this will make one doubt. I’ve tried to be more ‘giving’ – and showing the kids that it’s necessary to help others. But when they don’t do what you think they’re going to do with the “help” – who’s fault is it? Mine because I said yes, or theirs because they’re making a wrong {to me} choice? We can only do so much…

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