Saturday, 6 October 2007

Acts of kindness

Some people are so kind-hearted they just don't have it in them to ignore a hard luck story or a pleading face. I used to be that way but I've got a bit more thick-skinned over the years.

I think what altered me was a spell of unemployment in London, when I used to walk round Hyde Park every day and give my small change to the beggars and dossers.

As the weeks went by, the number of outstretched hands grew and my purse emptied faster and faster. Finally I called a halt and just walked past them all.

Nowadays I find it fairly easy to turn down the doorstep callers selling dishcloths, collecting for dubious charities or even offering cut-price paintings. Their "If you don't respond, you're obviously an insensitive brute" expression just doesn't cut any ice.

I'm not Mr Stone-Heart, but I'll only give when I feel a genuine desire to give, or when I'm passionate about a particular cause. I'm not going to give just because someone tries to guilt-trip me about refusing, or implies I'm a sick bastard for doubting their dreadful tale of woe.

I was once stopped in the street by a wild-eyed middle-aged man with an improbable story about a sick daughter, a stolen wallet and his urgent need for a taxi fare, which of course he would pay back the next day. He was most affronted when I turned him down, and even more affronted when I pointed out the strong smell of alcohol he was giving off.

It was quite different when a workmate really did have her purse stolen and we all chipped in to make up the loss. Or when Jenny and I gave away a hardly-used canteen of cutlery to a student setting up her first flat-share.

I'm a sucker for buskers too. I don't care what they want the cash for, some stirring music always brightens my day. Oh, and collections at political rallies. Does the cash go to the strike fund or the pub on the corner? I don't know and I don't ask.


Update on the OzBus: I read in the Guardian today that the OzBus is facing mutiny after claims of breakdowns, itinerary changes and difficulty getting food. The passengers are currently stuck in Tehran waiting for a replacement bus. One of them, Lucy Allen, 22, says "The whole bus is up in arms. We are currently stuck in this hellhole. We are no longer seeing half the things we were promised. The only food we've had since Istanbul is from petrol stations." Can't say I'm surprised. Here's the link for the story.


  1. I prefer to give food or cigarettes over money, Nick, but your right in that you sometimes feel the need to hand out cash. I'll always give money to support kids when they come around selling stuff to raise funds for their schools and other community stuff besides the church. When we lived in Oregon these wealthy kids were slumming it living on the streets and bumming cash. So many of them. Drove me nuts.

  2. Food - great idea. Cigarettes? Not comfortable with that, seeing as they're so toxic. When I lived in London, it was often said that the doorway dossers weren't all genuine, that some of them had places to live but pretended otherwise. Never did find out if that was true.

  3. Well as a smoker, it's a natural gesture to give them away. I figure if you're homeless smoking is the least of your worries.
    They did an extensive study here in Toronto and with all the social services available the people who are on the street stay there by choice. I don't know how they make it through the winter here.

  4. Nick,

    I'm very suspicious of "large" charities, even the generally legit ones.

    After Hurricane Katrina, my brother started a fund for our relatives in New Orleans - all of the money went directly to a cousin, who in turn disbursed it among family members according to need.

    I feel a sense of helpless rage when I read about the waste - and fraud - connected with large fundraising efforts. I try to keep my donations local and focused: support a local shelter for the homeless rather than give to panhandlers who may or may not be needy.

  5. Medbh - "Smoking is the least of your worries" - I guess that's true. Yes, I've read several times that a lot of homeless people don't like 'proper' homes because they feel regimented and tied-down. Strange indeed. And I imagine many of them DON'T make it through the winter - the average lifespan of street sleepers is something like the mid-fifties. Appalling.

    Diane - Being a charity worker myself, there's an awful lot I could say about the way charities are run, but I won't - who knows who's reading this? All I can say is, I think giving through more direct channels is an excellent idea. In fact Jenny and I supported local Christmas shelters in London.

  6. I want to adopt a little brother or a sister somewhere in the world, doesn't matter where really. A child who has been born to unfortunate circumstances. Pay for his/her needs and eventually education.
    I have no idea which organization is really trust-worthy to do this, or maybe I should just visit an orphanage somewhere but the kids there get adopted eventually. I don't know how to proceed but it's one of the things I want to do, to help a child (not my own by birth) grow up happy and have a fair chance at life. I do not give money to beggars, I don't know if there is a network behind them who are dropping them at corners and then picking them up after a day of "work" or not. I do have a habit of buying pens or chocolate etc for charities, but I demand a printed / stamped receipt always. If they don't have it, it can't be legit. I feel for people in need but I am not in the habit of throwing money in cans without a proof of genuine charity.

  7. I also find it hard to walk past a busker without dropping something in the collection... What always fascinates me about the beggars here is that they speak fluent English, Dutch, German and French - it widens their 'market'.

  8. Gaye - That's a great idea to adopt a little sibling who could do with a better deal in life. And smarter than just bringing another newborn into the world. No idea how you'd go about doing it though, not my job area at all.

    Con - Very enterprising. Do you think they spend three months a year in each country? The next time I pass a dosser, he'll probably be engrossed in "Polish for Beginners".

  9. OzBus --- aww poor people that originally decided to pretend to be common people kind, after coughing up so much money only to end up in a struggle like that. I am sure they will come out of this experience stronger, bonded and who's to say this was not part of the bargain? It's good for them, builds character.

  10. I'd like to think they'll come out of the experience stronger, but then again they might end up totally disgruntled and hating each other's guts. It'll be interesting to see if they all get to Sydney or if some of them pull out early.