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Themic life - Sally's Journal
November 12th, 2012
11:19 pm

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Themic life
Last night, on the coach back from Luton, I read squid314's post about a guy asking him for money for train tickets. It's a nice discussion of 'is this a scam, did he really want train tickets, did I do the right thing / wrong thing, it's all a bit finely balenced, I'll never really know'

On my way back from hashing tonight, a homeless person came up to me and said 'please can you help, I need some money for somewhere to stay tonight'. Now (embarressingly) probably only because I was with someone I wanted to impress and who I wanted to think I was nice, I didn't mumble-and-dash-off fast enough, and Scot's post was fresh in my mind, and so I said 'err, I don't give money, sorry, do you want me to walk down to Wintercomfort with you and pay'. And they said 'oh, Wintercomfort is full, I was going to get money for a B&B', and me, embarressed and drawn in now, said (with sinking heart) 'oh, what B&B were you thinking of', and the story was vague and unconvincing and not like someone who wanted to be in a B&B, and so I briskly said 'I'm sorry I can't help' and walked off. And, again, am left with that niggle of 'if I was homeless, I probably wouldn't be able to rattle off a tourist board list of B&Bs'. And that interesting niggle of how much is this nice, middle class, 'I won't give money if you say you want it for X, but I will buy you the X' get out of jail free card really just the same patronising and humiliating 'I won't give you benefits, but I will give you food stamps and pay your housing costs' that so many people on my fiends list are so against?

Anyway, then I got home, and found out that pavanne had posted yet another similar story, in which she had actually been able to help the person in question out by buying the X.

Not sure what the point is. Things happen in threes, or people over pattern spot, or life is full of choices where the only choice is be taken advantage of or be heartless.

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From:toothycat
Date:November 12th, 2012 11:24 pm (UTC)
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If it's any help, the one time I did offer to buy a guy a room in a 'B&B he knew' he turned round halfway there and confessed he was a drug addict and was leading me on to get the money. I was with a friend in broad daylight so I don't think there was any threat, I think he just wanted his drug supplier to pretend to be a B&B owner or something... but I'm glad I had my friend with me and I'm glad he owned up before we got there!
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From:toothycat
Date:November 12th, 2012 11:46 pm (UTC)
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Although, in a counterexample and possibly also a response to your question about it being a patronising and humiliating way of providing for people, I also once paid for a dog's vet bills instead of giving money. The guy was homeless and his dog had got into a fight and got a ripped ear. He'd taken it to the vet and the vet had treated the dog and had asked the guy to pay £10 per week until the bill was paid. It must have been a Sunday or after 6 because the vet was closed, so I gave the guy a cheque for the amount there was left to pay rather than giving him a tenner. He then said he actually preferred it that way since it stopped him using the money for himself, and he admitted that might have happened.

I never remembered to check my bank account, so I don't know whether the cheque was paid in or not. I hope it was, but I wasn't 100% sure of the vet's name ^^; There must have been a reason I couldn't come back during working hours - possibly I was working in Hinxton by then. I'm not sure. Anyway, another example :)
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From:ceb
Date:November 12th, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
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I got some random probably-scammer at the station a week or so ago, but he had such an incoherent story I couldn't even work out what it was (something about a dog I think?) and was so obviously stood in front of the station accosting everyone who came past that I just apologised and went.

Stopping is the problem. Once you've stopped, you've already put some effort into the conversation and it's much harder to say no. If there were some less arm-twisting way of signalling problems I'd help much more often and feel happier about it too.

I had an awful doorstepping the other week, too. An absolutely lovely studenty type apparently collecting for some deaf kids' charity, all very convincing and full of details about the rules he was sticking to &c., but it started off with plausible things like name and address and then went on and on and with "oh we just need your email" and "oh we just need you to say you'll give us some money even if it's just a quid" and at the point it got to "oh we just need you to prove you have a bank account, like give me the number or show me a statement or something" I told him to go away. God knows whether he was genuine or not. If I could remember the name of the charity I'd write to them and ask and (if genuine) point out to them how much like scammers their collectors look...
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From:vinaigrettegirl
Date:November 13th, 2012 06:50 am (UTC)
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I once went so far as buying the importuning girl the bus ticket home, and left her on it. I saw her two weeks later trying the same scam on someone else. She saw me, turned pale, and ran. I asked another Regular Beggar about her and RB said, " oh, that'll be Hailey. She's on heroin. Sad, she was a nice girl, it's doing her no good, we try to get her to rehab but it's no good. Any spare on you today?"

I give chocolate bars to individuals now, and money to the charities specialising in drug rehab and homelessness, who have experience and accountability.

Incidentally, if the Condemnation Teaparty's new rules go ahead homelessness will no longer be a priority criterion for social housing.
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From:ringbark
Date:November 13th, 2012 09:34 am (UTC)
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I've been playing the game of "I won't give you money but I will buy you food/train tickets/whatever" for a great many years and could bore you rigid with it, but here are a few highlights.

Central Liverpool, 1980s - offered to buy him food, he agreed. We then walked round a lot of the central district looking for a place - have you any idea how few places there sold ready-to-eat food? Eventually we ended up in an upmarket department store, where the store detective took an instant interest in us and followed us till we scarpered with a few sandwiches. I left him (the hobo, not the detective) on a bench outside to eat them, and walked right round the block to check on him. Yes, he was still there, eating slowly.

Birmingham, 1980s - wanted a train ticket to Coventry. I bought one and saw him through the barrier with it. If a Birmingham scammer, later that evening became a Coventry scammer. If not, got home safely.

London, 2000s - wanted food. Took to McDonalds, had a full meal. I learned more about youth self-harming than ever before.

London, 2000s - apparently wanted food. I offered to take him and buy it. He walked a short distance with me, told me that he didn't want to be any trouble. I said it was no trouble, he said it would be easier for me just to give him money - gave up after a few minutes because he didn't want to inconvenience me - or else because he knew I wasn't ever going to give money.

Chester, 2000s - she wanted £1 towards ticket to Manchester. I offered to buy the whole ticket. Well, there are two of us. No problem, I'll buy two tickets. But train doesn't go for a while yet. No problem, if I buy them now, you can use them on the next train. I think she really did want to go. Her friend seemed to think there was a problem: just give us the money. No, I'm only buying tickets. Her friend wouldn't let me. I went off. Then, a minute or two later, I returned. "If you really did want to go to Warrington, tell your friend she's a prat." As I left, it was just kicking off.

Manchester, 2000s - he wanted a ticket to somewhere or other, I bought it for him, he seemed happy. Not very interesting story!

And so on.
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 13th, 2012 10:21 am (UTC)
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*hugs*

Yeah, I don't know. Although I have friends who are super organised and responsible about helping people (Miriam, Ashley, etc) so I should probably ask them.

My thoughts are:

  • I don't know how likely it is that someone actually needs a train ticket without some specific reason (running away, lost wallet, etc), maybe it's plausible, maybe it isn't.
  • If they are not exactly telling the truth, the "let me buy it for you" dance involves both parties digging themselves in deeper: just as much as the appealee, the appealer probably doesn't know how to extricate themselves if it goes on too long.
  • OTOH, if someone is running this line and isn't good at it, they probably do need the money: there are cases of people doing this because it's an easy way to get money, but they're probably smoother
  • I don't know that giving people money for food/shelter instead of just money is actually better. Most people I know are against attaching complicated conditions to job-seeker's allowance or disability living allowance or child benefit, etc, on the grounds that even if some money is wasted, and even if some people are bad at budgeting, having an ignorant strange trying to micromanage everyone's lives doesn't help much.
  • I may know the right answer and just not like it, in that the right answer may be "learn what's commonly a scam and what's most likely to actually help", but that's more work.
  • In my head utilitarian friends are screaming at me for caring more about "middle class person in distress" than "person of any class who's lost their job and is homeless". Like why people responded more to disasters in NY and Tokyo than anywhere else. I think there's good reason for that other than tribalism: you can always help "people like you" without worrying you're trying to fill a bottomless bucket, and you get the benefit indirectly in "paying it forward". But I'm not sure it's moral to help "you whose lost your train ticket" but not help "you whose lost your job"
  • Maybe we need more places people can go to make a sandwich, since a loaf of bread and some ham is so much cheaper than a sandwich. For that matter, even if local government can't afford to house everyone homeless (they probably should), surely it couldn't cost that much to feed everyone homeless in a sensible non-humiliating way? And have massive secondary benefits that no-one is begging for food. What's the worst case scenario? Someone low on cash or in a hurry comes in for a free meal? That seems... probably a good thing?
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 13th, 2012 10:32 am (UTC)
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PS. I also always feel very strange buying meat for people, but I think it's important that I swallow my pride and just get whatever's most convenient for someone. It's basically the same case as people doing aid work but making it contingent on accepting missionary work; refusing to buy someone a ham sandwich can never possibly convince them, just make them resent me, so even if I think it's wrong, the harm done by buying a ham sandwich is less than that of bullying someone into agreeing with me.
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From:pavanne
Date:November 13th, 2012 10:51 am (UTC)
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I don't think it is the same thing at all as food stamps and housing costs (though I am not truly against either of those, people do need some money too). The person asked you for a money for a purpose; you offered to fulfil purpose, beyond the call of strict obligation; not patronising. I would expect the person to have some idea about nearby B&Bs.

Anyway sounds like you did the right thing (and for the record, given the lady I helped hasn't made contact, I think I did the wrong one or at least the scammer-enabling one. Although there's a perfectly reasonable possibility that her story was true, she just can't be bothered to pay me back and assesses, accurately, that I'm not going to put a great deal of effort into it).
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From:mair_aw
Date:November 13th, 2012 02:45 pm (UTC)
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or if she was disorganised enough to get in the mess in the first place, she may not be organised enough to get around to paying you back.
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From:chess
Date:November 13th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)
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I think the difference between this and food stamps is the local/personal element.

If you are speaking one to one with the person on need on an individual level, they can ask you for the thing they actually need right now (like dog food or vet bills instead of sandwiches) and you can get that for them. If they have to interact with a faceless bureaucracy for it (and putting a face on the bureaucracy is too expensive most of the time), then they end up with things that are ill-fitting to their needs.

It's still a little patronising (because you're obviously judging the validity of their need) but the outcome for them is much better than in the food stamp situation.
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From:atreic
Date:November 13th, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC)
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I think it's not about judging the validity of the need, it's about judging both the honesty of the story and the validity of the need. If they'd asked for money to buy drugs, I would have no qualms about the honesty of the story, but would mark them down for validity of need, smug middle class person that I am. Whereas when I am asked for money for somewhere to sleep, I think the need is valid, but the story less honest...
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From:pavanne
Date:November 13th, 2012 05:26 pm (UTC)
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Yeah. I never understood why people asking for money for food turn down offers to buy food, even if they were really after money for drugs. Food's always good, and turning down the offer makes it obvious that a) the story wasn't honest and b) the need is probably not what I'd consider valid.
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From:lavendersparkle
Date:November 13th, 2012 07:25 pm (UTC)
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I've felt a bit easier about these sorts of dilemmas since I went to a class about the halacha of giving to beggars. Now I just give 50p to £1 to anyone who asks me for money (obviously if a friend asked for some cash I'd be willing to give more). I don't agonise over it or get embarrassed. I don't have to worry about whether the money is spent on drugs or food or whether it was a scam. I gave because I was asked. End of.

Of course, this is an easy approach because I am affluent and I only get asked for money by beggars less maybe once or twice a month so it's a negligible expense. I'd have to re-evaluate the plan if I was somewhere with crowds of beggars every day.
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From:atreic
Date:November 13th, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
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I tried for lent one year, just giving money to anyone who asked, but I ended up feeling that even though it was a mostly-negligable expense (and I think it was much more like once or twice a week rather than once or twice a month) it didn't seem to be achieving much positive, and might have been encouraging things I disapproved of.
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From:lavendersparkle
Date:November 14th, 2012 07:11 am (UTC)
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Halacha isn't a consequentialist system.

I'm not sure that the embarrassed middle class 'I'll buy you an x' shuffle achieves much positive either.
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From:wellinghall
Date:November 13th, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
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I was once accosted by someone in Birmingham, wanting money to get back home. I felt a tad guilty about not giving him any ... until a couple of weeks later, I was accosted by the same chap again.
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From:theinquisitor
Date:November 13th, 2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
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There's a guy I've actually recognised three times around Cambridge asking for money for bus tickets. Once I can believe. Three separate occasions? No.
From:writinghawk
Date:November 14th, 2012 09:13 am (UTC)
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When I'm asked for money I give it some of the time, based on whether (I have time to stop and be engaged in conversation and) I guess they actually need the money. It concerns me that this policy may not be very good, admittedly. When I take the trouble to stop and offer to buy them food or whatever it is, I generally feel better about the outcome.

(Except perhaps for the chap who gave endless grief at the counter of Gregg's, bought much more than I'd agreed to, and then pinched a bag of crisps on the way out and dashed off without a word to me.)

I *have* been asked for money for drugs, by someone who said 'at least I'm not lying to you about what it's for' or something of the kind. (I don't think I gave it him, but I can't actually remember.)

Requests for money for travel/petrol have always turned out to be scams as far as I could tell to the best of my ability. No doubt sometimes people really do need money to get home, but I think they are swamped by the people who've discovered this is easy money. I'm often not very convinced by requests for money for somewhere to stay either - but sometimes I make a contribution. Once I told someone I'd come to the hostel on Victoria Road with him and pay for his room. We walked right across town to get there, and just outside he said 'Oh, can you give me the money now - wait here, you can't come inside as they have a strict policy against begging and I'd be thrown out if they saw you.' After having made such an investment of time I gave him the money, of course (substantially more than I'd have given him if I'd just agreed straight away), feeling foolish. I've still no idea what he did with it. But one lives and learns.

A guy once stopped and asked me for money for food, in such a seemingly desperate state he could hardly talk. I said 'look, come to the Van of Life' (it was late at night) 'and I'll get you something.' We walked down there together and he started trying to tell me his story, which I've forgotten but it was a sad one, and calmed down a lot when he realised I was actually listening. I bought him a hamburger and said 'You'd better keep this' and gave him the change from a fiver. A couple of weeks later he saw me in town and rushed up to thank me again. If you have time to listen to people it's sometimes as valuable as anything else you can offer.

One problem with food vouchers is that people can and do collect them and sell them on to others for money to buy drugs or whatever. So they have all the downsides of being patronising and not necessarily targeting need while actually solving nothing. I don't think it's at all the same if you offer to pay for someone's hostel room or whatever they've specifically asked for, if you have time.

My solution nowadays is to make a regular contribution by standing order to Centrepoint, who know what they're doing and who they're working with, and to usually give a token amount when I'm asked. Fundamentally what I resent is that if someone asks me for money, I feel that I am in the position of having to assess their need. I am not qualified to, I generally don't have time, and it creates an unpleasant dynamic to boot. I want to just pay my sodding taxes and know that someone else is going to make that assessment and do something about it. If someone asks me for a quid when I'm running to catch a bus, I shouldn't have to make the choice to either (i) privilege my bus-catching above their need to eat, or (ii) miss my bus.

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From:atreic
Date:November 14th, 2012 02:59 pm (UTC)
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I want to just pay my sodding taxes and know that someone else is going to make that assessment and do something about it. Yes, this! Maybe the answer is to join some sort of pressure group campaigning for better support for the homeless to be provided by the state. Although I'm not sure I could say 'I'm sorry, I won't give you 2 quid for a sandwich, but I did write a letter to my MP saying that your situation is unfair and something must be done' with a straight face.
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From:livredor
Date:November 14th, 2012 12:06 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for talking about this! I have thinky thoughts...
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From:atreic
Date:November 14th, 2012 12:24 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for your thinky thoughts! I mostly agree. I may reply over there.
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From:illusive_shelle
Date:November 14th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
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I do not often think of myself as middle class, given I come from working class roots, but I guess with my Cambridge education and professional career I must be now!

I will buy X when asked for money. Rarely though are people grateful; the majority of the time they seem long suffering and not wanting X, just wanting my money, which then puts my back up.

In Crete, an old woman lay on the ground shaking and mumbling incoherantly. When she thought no-one was watching, she got up and moved away at quite a spritely speed to examine her takings.

I had a bad experience at the beginning of this year when asked for money for a coffee, to which I said I'd buy a coffee from the cafe up the street. As we walked, the guy began asking for more and more money, not just £1 for takeaway coffee but then £2 and £5 and so on. I got cross and told him that I'd offered to buy the coffee but not to push it. He backed off a little and I bought a coffee and a kitkat while inside. He made a show of thanking me and asked for money, then backed off again when I glared.

Two minutes later, I walked down the other side of the street. Coffee still in hand, kitkat finished, he was begging again, and smoking. Ten minutes later I was walking back to the car park and came across the same guy. He told me that I looked like I could spare more and that his need was so great that he needed it more than me.

I lost my temper.

People who have genuinely needed help have always been grateful for whatever help they get, whether hitchhikers or the hungry. To be told someone deserves the money I earn more than I do and that they have a right to it upsets me a lot. Hsving given something, I object to the core that I should HAVE to give more to a stranger. That makes me very upset, and prejudices me against helping in the future.

There are so many fakers, it seems that statistically I shouldn't give as it will usually be going for nefarious purposes. But still I try to give that for which one asks, to feel that I give some charity to the needy.
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