The moral dilemma: Choosing whom to help in times of need

Jun 12, 2023
I’d never knowingly give money to gypsies. But sometimes it is hard to differentiate between genuine beggars and gypsies. Source: Getty

Would you stop and give money to someone begging on the street?

And why do you choose one person to gift a few coins to, ahead of 100 others who are equally as needy?

Begging is something that confronts you every day as you wander the once-great streets of Europe’s most famous cities and towns.

Rome, Athens, Cannes, Florence, Barcelona and Lisbon are all historic and wealthy cities. Today though when you visit you walk past, sometimes have to step over, people who look to be in desperate circumstances holding empty paper coffee cups and pleading for money. They are usually filthy dirty with their belongings sitting beside them in a plastic bag.

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to beg. How desperate must you be to sit in a dirty doorway on a busy street for hours and hours and plead for money from tourists, like me, who barely give you a second glance?

People who are carrying designer shopping bags filled to overflowing with handbags, shoes and $70 t-shirts emblazoned with “save the earth” slogans.

Sadly, not all beggars are the real deal. Our tour guide warned us to be wary of giving money to vagabonds. She said there was every chance that your generosity would be rewarded by having your pocket picked moments later.

Gypsies beg for a living. I’d never knowingly give money to a vagabond. But sometimes it is hard to differentiate between genuine beggars and vagabonds.

But in 2023, in a world consumed with the next shiny thing, the situation with begging goes far beyond vagabonds.

Surprisingly, I saw lots of young women begging holding onto hand-written signs on pieces of cardboard that said that they were trying to get enough money to travel home.

African refugee mothers, with children on each hip, smile hopefully with their hands out when you pass by.

One young man, lying on the busy city sidewalk in Florence, had five cups in front of him, each labelled differently giving people a choice as to how their donation would be spent. One cup was labelled Food, the next Sleep, then Medicine, Alcohol and Weed. At least he was being honest about how he planned to spend his money.

My wife Ali gives money to anyone who has a dog with them. She can’t help herself. Animals are her weakness. Both the RSPCA and Animal Welfare League have her on speed dial back home whenever they need some extra cash.

I usually give my spare coins to people who are at least doing something to earn them. Perhaps they might be singing, playing the accordion, or even selling the Big Issue. I was in Cleveland, Ohio, for a conference a few years back and noticed a guy holding a pile of Big Issues. I asked him what it would cost to buy them all. It was my last day in America, and I still had cash in my wallet, so I was feeling generous.

He said $50. I handed him the money and told him to keep the Big Issues and keep selling them to make some extra cash. Much to my surprise, he stood up, dumped the magazines in the nearest bin and walked straight into the liquor store across the road. That’s a great lesson, once you hand the money over, you have no control over how it is spent.

Europe is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. Homelessness numbers are rising dramatically as more and more refugees flood the continent searching for a new, and hopefully better, life. A lot, find themselves living on the streets, poor, and begging for food.

In the past 10 years, homelessness has doubled in France. Figures released in February this year show there are now more than 330,000 people living on the streets.

In December last year, a report in Germany said there were more than 263,000 people sleeping on the streets – and more than half of those had either a long-term illness or some form of disability.

It’s not just a European problem though. In the United States, more than 500,000 people were reported to be homeless in 2022, a figure that has increased every year since 2016. Most experts say that figure is dramatically under-reported.

Disturbingly, in America at least, a survey by the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that people give more to well-dressed beggars. That really is bizarre. Americans will give more money to people that don’t look like they need help, rather than to people who look poor.

In England, the number of people sleeping rough has risen by more than a quarter in one year.

In Australia in 2006, it was reported that 89,733 people were homeless. By 2021, that figure had risen to 122,494. According to a census report, 58 per cent of those homeless were males; 21 per cent were aged 25-34; 20 per cent identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

Mission Australia says that one in seven Australians who experience homelessness are over the age of 55.

Older women are the fastest-growing homelessness group in Australia. The 2016 Census showed an increase of 31 per cent in the over 55 female categories.

They are people that look, speak and share the same life experience as our friends and Starts at 60s regular readers.

There’s no doubt that homelessness and begging will become more prevalent in Australia over the next few years as the economy stalls and interest rate hikes bite harder.

And there’s also no doubt it will be confronting when we see people who look like us sitting on the ground in the Brisbane Mall, or Adelaide’s Rundle Mall, or Sydney’s Pitt St, begging for a few spare coins.

The question is: How will choose which person gets your few spare coins?

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