When the homeless ask for spare change, I generally give what I have. The fact that some of them are undoubtedly going to use my contribution to buy their drug of choice fails to bother me – I figure it’s none of my business, and I can’t be sure that in their position I wouldn’t buy a few hours of escape myself. But every now and then, I meet a panhandler who pushes hard, demanding more than I am willing or able to give.
It’s not that I imagine that parting with a dollar or two gives me any right to gratitude. They are probably frustrated by having dozens of passersby ignore them. Nor am I to blame if they conclude from my blandly wholesome face that I am an easy mark. But when someone pushes me, I turn stubborn.
Usually, the result is only being sworn at and maybe followed a few steps. Occasionally, though, I meet a panhandler whose stubbornness matches my own.
Once, for example, I was walking from the Chinatown-Stadium Skytrain station to Yaletown when a man approached me saying that he needed money for a bus ticket to Whistler. The bus was leaving in twenty minutes from in front of the Hotel Vancouver, he said.
I suspected he was lying – the excuse is a common one, and I happened to have looked up the bus schedule a few days previously. Yet I gave him a few dollars. It wasn’t enough for a bus ticket, but the deadline was a new twist, and I thought he deserved the handout for his creativity.
Immediately, though, he started demanding more. I said (truthfully) that I had no spare change or bills until I went to the bank. He then said he would accompany me to the bank, and started to walk along with me, alternately telling me long, rambling stories about his life and repeating his request for more money and cursing the selfishness of rich people like me who wouldn’t help him. My repeated insistence that he was not getting more from me apparently went unheard.
The time was early afternoon, but it occurred to me that an attempted mugging was a possibility. I made sure that he was never behind me, and kept walking at a steady pace, determined not to appear nervous or afraid, either of which might provoke an account.
At the bank, the security guards let me in, but not him. He backed away, yelling that I had promised him money, and I joined a long and slow-moving line of customers, even though I had no account at the bank. When he finally gave up, I left the line and got my money from the bank machine.
On Christmas Day, I met another persistent panhandler while waiting for the bus in from of The Bay downtown. I was sitting on the bench at 9:30 in the morning when a passing woman seemed to size me up in passing and return to sit beside me.
With a Quebecois accent, she poured out a series of reasons for needing money. She needed to get breakfast, she told me. She had two kids in a car a few blocks away who needed to eat. She wanted money to stay at a shelter. In a similar rush of contradictions, she said that she was a good girl, that she didn’t do drugs, that she needed the money to get to an addict support meeting.
I gave her what change I had. It was less than she said she needed, and she insisted I must have more money in my wallet. I said she could easily find the rest, and she insisted that the locals were not so generous. She suggested going to a bank machine, and I refused, pointing out that I was waiting for a bus. She said that the Virgin Mary had told her that I would be the person who helped her, and that if I bought a lottery ticket that day, I would surely win.
Over and over, I told her that she had had all that I was prepared to give. Over and over, she changed her story, as though a new one might make me change my mind.
Before very long in this development, others waiting for the bus had moved away – although not so far that they were unable to hear. I was starting to think that only boarding my bus would let me escape, when she abruptly gave up and stalked down the street, obviously furious.
Such encounters disturb me. I am reluctant to ignore those begging on the street, yet, at the same time, I dislike being pressured into doing something, or to be thought gullible. Usually, I spend several hours after them wondering if I have been arrogant or handled the situation well. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have been afraid rather than annoyed.
But I see no way of solving the dilemma to anyone’s satisfaction, so it is sure to happen again – most likely when I am tired or distracted and want nothing better than to be left alone and not to see such social problems first-hand.