I lived in Boston for seven years, and never once gave money to someone begging for money. [update: I read this line and think people may think I say it with pride. I am not proud of it. I am not unproud of it. It is just what happened.] I had developed incredibly thick skin against begging. A homeless person could meet me face to face on the street, and my gaze would look through them, as if they weren't there. Of course, the real reason for that was to avoid getting trapped in a conversation with a crazy person, which is hard to exit once entered without simply walking away mid-sentence.
There was also a guy who delivered a heart-wrenching oratory to everyone at a subway stop — he was trying to break out of being a deadbeat, and he had an interview setup at Macy's in a couple hours, but he needed money for a haircut. Just $10. I was tempted to pitch in. The guy really seemed genuine. But I didn't. Incidentally, I saw that same guy give a similarly well-delivered oratory another time in the future, so I'm less convinced his story was true.
After three months living in San Francisco, I have given away two ten dollar-bills, and a blanket.
The first incident happened as I was throwing out my trash one night. The event was more personal somehow. It was at my home. Nobody else was around. I told the guy I didn't have my wallet on me at the moment, which, it occurred to me, was not a very good excuse given that I could easily retrive it. Then the guy asked if I had a blanket. It occurred to me that I had thrown a blanket into the trash recently, so I felt bad denying him one.
I told him I would get him a blanket. I did. I also got him $10. And when I handed over the goods, I asked him "what do you do?" This seemed like an awkward question, since it didn't seem like he "did" anything. But he said he sold pot, but the police had confiscated his stash recently, so he didn't have any income at the moment. He was trying to get a court order to get his stash back, but it was taking time. He showed me his license for selling pot. I asked him about his opinion on the legalization of pot — since it affected his career. He said he voted for legalization, but that if it was legalized, he would probably need to find another job.
Now just today, I was dropping someone off in San Francisco near a donut shop, and a guy approached me on the driver's side asking for two dollars for a donut. I was somewhat relieved that he wasn't asking for my car, and given that I didn't have two dollar-bills, I gave him a ten.
I haven't decided what I think about begging.
Q: Are you worried that people will just buy drugs with your money?
A: No. I don't care if they buy drugs. I don't care if their stories are genuine. They obviously want money for something. I'm not going to judge whether that something is good. I assume they aren't trying to kill people with my money.
Q: Are you worried that begging favors people who ask for money over people who need money but don't ask for it?
A: I do worry about that. I think that I would be a sheepish beggar, reluctant to bother people, so by giving money to aggressive beggars, I'm selecting against my genetic kin. But if that was really my objection, then I suppose I would find myself donating money to bashful-beggar-causes. But I don't.
Q: Are you worried that beggars are crazy people?
A: Well, I think many of them are crazy, but that doesn't seem like a good reason not to give them money. If they are asking for money, they probably know how to use it.
Q: Do you think beggars are already supported by homeless shelters and such, and so they shouldn't be asking for money?
A: I assume they generally do use homeless shelters and such. I don't think it's wrong of them to also ask for money. I'm less concerned about whether they are morally justified in asking for money, and more concerned about whether I will give them any.
Q: Are you worried that you're making an insignificant dent in a much larger problem?
A: Yes. I do think giving money to a beggar is an insignificant dent in a much larger problem. And to the extent to which my normal activity is working toward a better future, the time I spend reaching into my wallet to get money for a beggar is taking time away from that pursuit. But, it isn't that much time. And I probably wouldn't have made that much progress anyway, because I would be walking around somewhere where beggars are located, rather than "working".
Q: Are you worried that you'll miss the money you give to a beggar?
A: No. Not to one beggar. Though, if I gave money to every person who asked, while walking in a big city, I suspect it might actually be a problem. I haven't done the calculation. In fact, that is one argument I've thought about against giving money to a beggar, which is, since I can't give to all of them, why this one. But I'm not sure that is actually a good argument against giving anything to anyone.
Q: Are you just annoyed by the physical interruption in your activity to give to a beggar?
A: Yes. But giving to charities is easier, and I don't do that either.. I haven't decided what I think about charities..
hm.. I think it's a difficult problem, I don't know what to do, I haven't had time to think about it — it hasn't been a priority — and so I end up doing whatever random thing my body naturally does, which is apparently ignoring crazy people on the street, but giving to people in more personal situations that take me by surprise..