The Sunday Poll (on Monday): Am I A Heartless Crone For Not Helping People Who Beg For Transit Fare?

Every day.

“Excuse me, miss, can I ask you a question?” The man by the water fountain in the train station paused in his cell phone conversation. I eyed him warily.

I ride public transit every day and every day strangers stop me for one of two reasons.

First, I am a magnet for strangers who need directions. I used to think it was because I project a robust knowledge of Philadelphia, but then one morning I went up to New York City (which I don’t know as well) for a story, and while I was waiting for my driver amongst the flood of commuters pouring up the Penn Station stairs onto 7th Street, two different people chose me out of the whole crowd in the space of five minutes to ask directions. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked as a tour guide and travelers can sense it. Maybe I just look friendlier than your average commuter. Whatever it is, people stop me constantly.

I never mind helping people who are lost. That’s why I usually give folks the benefit of the doubt when they stop me, if I’m in an area that feels safe. But just as often, they’re stopping me for the second reason.

“Miss, I’m trying to get Wilmington, and can you give me just a $1.75? I just need $1.75 to catch the train!”

Fifty cents, seventy-five cents, a dime, a dollar, I just need to get to Chestnut Hill, Trenton, Malvern, 69th Street. Every time I pass through the train station. Usually I simply feign deafness. But a long weekend of varied assignments left me overwrought, and I still had not had dinner at 10pm.

“Oh yeah, you just need a dollar seventy-five, right?” I cried. “Just gotta catch the train, right? Yeah, you and every other person in this fucking city!”

Let me take a moment to apologize for my language (I know there are at least a few upstanding clergy members among my readers – I hope you won’t flee the premises). I don’t usually talk to people like that. But I want everyone to please note the motto of Alaina Mabaso’s Blog. So I’m going to tell this like it happened.

The man on the cell phone cursed back at me as I swept by.

We’re going to come to the poll soon. I’m going to ask you whether I’m a heartless crone for refusing to help people who ask for train and bus fare, but just bear with me for a minute first.

I am fed up. First, if I gave people the benefit of the doubt and bestowed fifty cents on every person who claimed they were just fifty cents short of their fare to Camden or wherever the hell they’re going, I would have no money left.

Many of these people who stop me are not attired like people in dire circumstances. They are often talking on cell phones or listening to headphones while they ask me for money. If you have an iPod and you can’t even take out your earbuds to talk to me, do you really expect me to believe you don’t have a dollar (or a debit card) in your pocket?

There’s always a story. My wallet got stolen. A car ran me down and I just got out of the hospital. My daughter’s all alone, giving birth in Thorndale. My friend was supposed to meet me but he bailed. I’m not going to ask you to give it to me because of the suffering of the blacks, but can you find it in your heart to give it to me as a fellow woman? There are various props and costume pieces, like a hospital wristband or a kid in a stroller.

Pass through the train station frequently, and you see people operating all day. Once I watched a man in a neck brace (who just needed enough for one bus fare, God bless you, just enough for one bus fare) approach a little family of suburban out-of-towners, who exclaimed over his misfortune and give him twenty dollars. Thirty minutes later he was at it on the other side of the station.

I am not opposed to giving charity. I donate for gardens at inner-city schools and I donate to earthquake victims. I donate to save starving children in Somalia and homeless animals and kids with leukemia. Yes, the amounts are small – I don’t have a lot to spare, but I volunteer when I can. As a writer, I try to give press to deserving local programs. I don’t object to my taxes going towards government programs that help homeless or hungry people. But I am at the end of my rope with these people and their dollar twenty-five to get to Cheltenham.  I have been working my butt off all day running around the city and I am not about to give you a handout just because you asked for it. You can bless me or curse me, but I’m walking away.

And yet. And yet.

My conscience still nags me. What if I’m marching by someone who really needs help? Is seventy-five cents really such a big deal? Maybe I’m a selfish girl who donates to orphans half a world away while ignoring needy people right in her own city.

And so we come to the poll.

Let me conclude by saying that I have given money in rare cases. Once it was to a teenager who really seemed stranded. Another time, the conductor on the train had neglected to collect my cash fare, and when a frazzled woman came up to me with her sob story I thought my own unspent fare was some kind of sign from the universe and I gave her a dollar.

Do you have a story to share in the comments that will help me sort any of this out?

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14 Comments

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  1. Hey Alaina, don’t feel bad. Like you said, you do your part to help out when you can and on your own terms (which is really all you CAN do). Giving to beggars or people who run that kind of game only perpetuates people doing that.

    I don’t blame anybody for trying to get money out of me in the bus or subway station – it’s their right to try. They’ve made money doing that because they can, so why shouldn’t they? But it’s not your job to enable them to do that.

    If they have you convinced that they actually do just need one bus fare, then maybe they did need just that. If they didn’t and they tricked you, hats off to them for doing an excellent job.

    But yeah, it sucks lowering your head or just ignoring people all the time. Nobody likes having to do that.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Bron. Maybe panhandlers who are convincing folks that they really do need train fare should get off the street and start auditioning. What you say is true – it does wear me out to ignore people all the time, even if I think that they don’t really need my help.

  2. I really can’t stand when this happens. The very worst is when one of these people says “I’m going to be honest with you, my aunt’s in the hospital an I’m trying to sell these VHS tapes so I can get the bus fare to visit.” It’s always BS.

  3. I say maybe, but with an additional “VERY rarely”. I think the few instances you related under the poll are enough. It drives me nuts when people want me to buy them a meal and I know there is a soup kitchen operating a few blocks away. However, I do think instincts account for something, and inexplicably, every once in awhile I pay attention or give them some change.

    The weirdest instance of this in my recent memory was a woman who asked me to buy her diapers on the street corner. She had a baby in a stroller, didn’t seem totally destitute, but maybe just a little down on her luck. She pointed to a CVS across the street, so despite the absurdity of the situation, I walked into the CVS with her, asked her to pick out the kind she wanted, purchased them for her, and gave her the CVS diaper coupon that printed with my receipt. She showered me with gratitude afterward, and there’s no way those diapers were for her own personal use, so I felt pretty good about it overall. Bizarre though….

    One last story about a time I was happy I talked to someone on the street. (I usually at least halfway pay attention, but it sometimes edges on totally ignoring them….and I, like you, seem to encounter A LOT of people who are begging.) So, the other day this older gentleman called me over to him outside the Trader Joe’s. I had my iPod in, so I don’t know what made me decide to go over to him and listen to what he had to say. But as it turned out, what he wanted was some help to know if cars were coming because he needed to cross the street and he couldn’t see very well anymore. I told him there were no cars coming, and then offered to cross the street with him just so he was sure there wouldn’t be a problem. He turned out to be the sweetest man! I told him my dad was having trouble seeing too and had to have cataract surgery soon. He told me he’d had that before and it wasn’t bad at all and to tell my dad not to worry about it or be scared. We had a short conversation and then went our separate ways, but he made my day, and I was really glad that I stopped for some reason….

    • Very true, sometimes when you’re open to a connection to someone it pays off. One theory I have about why so many stop me (either for directions or for money) is because I don’t listen to my iPod when I’m walking in the city – even on train platforms. Last year I saw a lady get her purse snatched right at my regular bus stop at 9am on a weekday on a major thoroughfare smack in center city. It brought home to me that I should never let my guard down, so I don’t wear the headphones when I’m downtown b/c I feel like I’ll be more aware that way, plus maybe thieves will think I LOOK more aware and leave me alone… Anyway, kind of a tangent, but the point was that maybe people single me out because I’m always one of the only people around who’s not wearing headphones.

      Thanks as always for stopping by and sharing.

  4. This is something I always struggled with when I was taking the bus to school and having to go through Olney Terminal. I usually try to ignore people who look like they’ve set up shop and are panhandling, but I have a much harder time with people who approach me directly. I would still generally try to ignore them, and try not to feel guilty, but on a couple of occasions I had an extra token in my pocket, so rather than giving them the 75c for the fare I offered to give them my extra token instead. Every time they looked aggravated at my offer, which I took to mean they weren’t actually short a fare, and they were just looking for money. I’m much more likely to buy someone a sandwich or give them a token if I think they really need it than give them money.

    • yeah, I will also give food if I have some on me. I guess none of your beggars considered that someone might offer them a token instead of cash…maybe they’ll have to change their story to avoid any more pesky offers of that kind of help.

      Thanks for sharing.

  5. I remember one of the hardest things for me about the four months I spent in southern Mexico many years ago was how many people asked me for money/help/food. It wasn’t my country, the stories weren’t the same, I couldn’t rely on my intuition to tell me who was for real. But I think a lot more of them were for real. I bought food for people sometimes and usually gave coins. The families with kids were the hardest to pass by, and the young kids by themselves. Yikes.

    In the States I don’t have much problem ignoring people who approach me for money. I do give sometimes to people w/signs at interstate off ramps – not sure why them and not others, but there it is.

  6. I work in downtown Washington DC. A good friend of mine grew up in the poorest and roughest parts of DC and pointed out that you can’t always tell by attire whether someone is homeless or not (I know you’re talking about simple pan-handling, but the principles are similar). In his own case, he gives clothes he’s done with to the local shelters and they’re quality stuff so the truly homeless might be sporting some flashy gear.

    One friend of mine used to get low-value gift cards for people who wanted money to buy a meal. At least, it went on a meal and not on booze.

    I personally find it’s easier to send some money to one of the downtown shelters. That way, I know it’s getting to the people that need it, not the ones that might or might not. And that donation is tax-deductible. Everyone’s a winner…

    • All good suggestions. I also donate old clothes. It’s true that people who are homeless will not always fit our image of homeless people and there’s so many things you can’t tell at a glance.

  7. I actually got stranded several times in the middle of nowhere with little or no money at all 🙂 Up until very recently I was an unemployed student with no money of my own (and sometimes no money at all). Well, for some reason I never thought about begging strangers for money. If I really needed to go to some other place, I would try one of the following: 1) head to the nearest highway and hitch a ride; 2) sneak into the train anyway and avoid the conductor at all costs (doesn’t work in some countries). In the worst case you have to step off the train and try option 1.

    Now that I think of it, some of my adventures were quite risky. My parents would probably go crazy if they knew all about it :]

    You could go a long way before you really need help. I had to walk 10 km because I didn’t have money for a bus, hitchhiked over 600 km in one day, spent a night on a train station, and while it sounds like something serious, it actually wasn’t. So you don’t have to feel bad about those people begging for money: they either have no shame or they have no imagination. If a dime is really all they need to be happy, they will be just fine without it.

    • Ha, my parents think it’s terribly dangerous anytime I ride the subway – my mother has a phobia. Riding the train all the time, I see all kinds of cheeky antics from people trying to avoid paying the fare. Sometimes, when it looks like someone is really in trouble, I’ve seen people give money to others. Once a young woman got on alone at about 12:30 am. When she showed the conductor her pass, he said it was not valid until 2am. She said she had purchased it for the coming day and had assumed it would be valid after midnight. The conductor wouldn’t bend, and told her he was calling the police to meet her at the next stop! Another passenger announced that that was ridiculous and gave the woman five dollars to pay her pre-2am fare.

      I like your perspective on train station beggars as lacking imagination. I guess you could also say they lack foresight – I ALWAYS travel with an extra token or two, just in case I get stranded somehow or have no means to get cash.

  8. Well, there may be people who really need the help. I know I’d get lost in a city. I’ve never even been in a subway. But I have seen a lot of pan-handlers outside churches and on the curb next to Wal-Mart. I once saw a whole group of people next to a car begging for gas money. I wondered, “Why are you even traveling? For fun? Are you really in such a dire situation that you have to get to a certain point?” The car was pretty nice too. I thought that maybe they were just trying to see if they could get away on taking a trip on other people’s money. They were all young. My Dad, who is well-traveled, told me that he sees them all the time, and he didn’t believe that they were truly in trouble.
    As I said about panhandlers next to churches and Wal-Mart, many of those “beggars” make a career of collecting donations. I heard of one man making up to 100,000 dollars a year. And because it’s donations, they don’t get taxes.
    But there are truly people in need. But instead of approaching people and panhandling, I think they need to find help for themselves. There are so many programs that help people get back on their feet and become self-reliant again. They have to find the help for themselves, and not depend on others to solve their situation without any personal effort. Sure, they can get help along the way–someone who helps them find the programs.
    Someone at church once told me that a family gave a full cart full of groceries for a family in need. But instead of trying to find help for themselves, the needy family kept coming back for them to feed them. It got to the point to where they had to decide if they should feed their own family, or the needy family.
    Yeah, I feel guilty too when I don’t give my money to some one who asks for money. But, as a college student, I’m very poor. If I see someone who is truly in need, and I can tell they are, I will.

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