A video was shown during one of the keynotes at the ESEA conference I attended this past week. The video was about how a little girl of seven was treated by how she presented herself.
In the first experiment, the little girl was nicely dressed, clean, and presentable. She stood in a very visible public location. As she stood there alone, all kinds of people stopped to check on her, dotted on her, and were concerned with her well-being.
Next, she was dressed in raggedy filthy clothing, hair unkempt, and dirt all over her face. Any guesses as to how she was treated. Totally and utterly ignored. Not one person stopped to ask her if she was okay. One lady did glance at her, but it wasn’t discernible if she truly glanced the little girls way, or just happened to look that way as she was walking.
A busy food court was the next scenario. As before, the little girl looked very nice and clean again. And again, everyone either wanted to help, or let her sit with them, laughed and talked to her.
When dressed poorly and grungy, she was shooed away, ignored, given mean looks, and one man even directed a worker to have her removed. The lead of the experiment saw how upset the child was getting and ended it to protect her emotional well-being.
It was a sad commentary in which the person most in need was treated the worst.
I saw this play out in a slightly different way the next day while walking to dinner. We walked past a man sitting on the sidewalk leaning against a wall. He was asking for help. Three of us, including me, walked by ignoring him. The fourth in our party acknowledged the man by telling him sorry, but he didn’t have anything to give. As we walked on, the man yelled out a thanks for saying something since the rest of us didn’t.
Immediately I felt guilty as the little girl came to mind. As we walked on, I struggled with what is the right thing to do. Usually I will do the same as my colleague and at least say I don’t have anything to give, but not this time. I wondered if it was because I was with a group of people, with most of us saying nothing. Is it a social norm for those of us who have “made it” to ignore those who haven’t if together?
I also wondered about the unknowns.
Once while living in San Francisco, a story was published about panhandling in the Castro. A couple of panhandlers were followed as they left their spots. The reporter discovered a couple of things. They discovered, for these few, they were not homeless or in want. In fact, most days they were given more than if they had had a traditional job for just a few hours on the street. Once they stripped off their “work garb,” they were more like the little girl when she was “presentable.”
That article, along with some of the harassment I’ve encountered when I don’t give money, has caused me to wonder if the person asking for money really needs it in a contextual sense. How does one know if there is need or not? How does one know if the money will go for food and shelter, or for alcohol and drugs?
So instead, I/we donate money to causes each year. Our hope is these funds find their way to those who have demonstrated a need in a traditional sense. I have purchased food when possible for some people who have asked for money, but I no longer give directly.
How do you handle these situations?