HOW are we to react when confronted with a beggar in the street? Are they in real dire straits? Are they part of a syndicate? Is the baby sleeping in their arms really theirs? Are we to dismiss the ones who prefer cash over food or other donations? Do we have a real duty to help or are we all too willing to be exploited to ease our feeling of guilt?
The strangest thing happened to me during a recent stay in my hometown in Europe. As a Malaysian friend was visiting me, we set out to do the grand tour of all noteworthy sites in town.
A lady in her 40s approached us in front of a supermarket. She was quite well put together; reasonable high street fashion, sensible winter boots and coat, even professionally cut and coloured blond hair. Imagine our surprise when she asked us for a donation towards the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter.
Really? Are you kidding me? Is “glam-begging” a thing now? So many thoughts went through my mind within seconds. But I also tried to understand how much courage this lady had needed, standing there admitting to the world that looks can be so very deceiving. I still don’t quite know what to make of this strange encounter. Had she just recently come upon hard times or did I fall for the biggest scam reverse psychology has ever produced? I guess I’ll never know.
In downtown Kuala Lumpur, beggars are a sad and daily sight. While Women, Family and Community Development Deputy Minister Hannah Yeoh states that thousands of homeless people have been given temporary shelter at five Anjung Singgah shelters in Kuala Lumpur in recent years, non-governmental organisations and individual volunteers argue that not enough is being done to help the poor in our midst.
Latest figures of beggars and vagrants are not readily available, but a 2017 report in the New Straits Times quoted a figure of 338 beggars in Selangor alone for the year 2015 as provided by the state Welfare Department.
Poverty and homelessness are a vicious circle. Once you lose your home, you lose hope, you lose the capability to look after yourself and with it the ability to look for reasonably remunerated employment. A few bad decisions is all it takes and you end up begging on the streets in no time. Illegal immigration and a lack of proper refugee status policies only aggravate the situation for many.
Having said that, organised begging syndicates create a vicious circle too. When we are confronted with destitution, we feel guilty, and we give money. Then we realise too late that we got scammed, we feel angry and we never give again. Unfortunately, this practice of categorical refusal to give alms to beggars will not stop syndicates from trying again, in a different location or with a new story, with or without sleeping babies involved. It will however, make life even more difficult for the ones who really depend on our generosity.
Organised scammers are out to get their hands on our hard earned cash every day. They try, and often succeed, on the Internet, on the phone, door-to-door, and in the streets. Abusing the good people’s credulity is a highly lucrative business.
But we are nobody’s fool, or so we think. We are intelligent, well informed and not so gullible any more. Therefore many argue that we should give food rather than money.
But what if the asking party doesn’t want money? What if the impoverished person would rather have a smoke, or a drink, or invest in a lottery ticket to at least feel a bit of hope, if only for a fleeting moment? Would we entertain a beggar honest enough to ask for money for liquor or cigarettes? That would be a bad decision, we say. But who are we to judge? Don’t we make bad decisions once in a while? Do we have the moral high ground just because we have been lucky enough to be born into the right family, the right place, the right circumstances?
Obviously, I don’t have a perfect solution. Obviously, I can’t always trust my instincts. Obviously, I will keep feeling guilty. Guilty when I give, and guilty when I don’t.
Fanny Bucheli-Rotter is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate