Facing Moral Dilemmas and Beggars in the Street

Thinking about things that are socially and culturally uncomfortable.

Posted Mar 25, 2018

I was having lunch with a colleague recently at an Indian restaurant in Montgomery County, Maryland, the twelfth wealthiest county in the country (US Census). He knew that I had spent almost a decade doing pro bono social justice and cultural psychology work in India, primarily Mumbai, one of India's wealthiest cities.

Mike asked me how I dealt with all the beggars, how could I bear to see people living in such poverty and begging on the street. From his own visit to India decades ago, he remembered the uncomfortable relentlessness of beggarly behavior. He remembered his discomfort, even pain, at "having to see" people hungry and in rags, hands held out with palms up. He resented the pavement men asking for a dollar rather than a nickel for a shoeshine.

Mike talked about wanting to return to India, touring. He would seek a package trip that focused on major sights and that would keep him out of beggars' way. "I don't want to face all those needy people." There are so many people and he couldn't give to everyone. Should he offer money to a  beggar at all? If yes, to whom would he give? To whom should he say "no?" How could he know who is deserving and who will use his money for alcohol, drugs or gambling? He would rather not face the problem. He would rather not be uncomfortable.

Mike presented a legitimate series of built-in dilemmas. There are an overwhelming number of people in need. There is no way that the awesome scope of the underlying social problem can be addressed on an individual level. Looking at such need is indeed difficult and it is genuinely hard to know to whom to give money and whom to ignore.  

And yet, not to respond as an individual removes our connection as human beings to the large social problem. Offering alms, for that is what it is, directly links the giver with people in need. Both parties are touched and the social problem is acknowledged. I turned to Mike and asked him, "Wouldn't it perhaps be better to face the moral dilemma directly than to be shielded from its  existence?"

We left the restaurant, said our goodbyes, and I got into my car. Heading north from southern Montgomery County, Maryland, the twelfth wealthiest county in the country, I drew to a stop at a red light. A man in need of a shower, clean clothes and a shave stood on the mid-street concrete island holding up a sign.

I am homeless and out of work.

I have a family.

Can you help?

The homeless population of Montgomery County, Maryland, the twelfth wealthiest county in the country, is notable and visible. Beggars are reliably present at many major traffic intersections, holding cardboard signs and outstretched hands palms up. They are unavoidable. Some drivers, lined up and ready to make a turn when the signal changes, hold a dollar bill out their car window; others do not. Some look intently straight ahead, pretending that the beggar is unseen.

There is a law pending in Montgomery County, Maryland, the twelfth wealthiest county in the country. This bill would outlaw traffic-island begging and thus remove the homeless from the places where traffic is most dense, where they are most seen and more likely to collect some money. They would be moved to the periphery and become less noticeable, less disturbing to see. Poverty and need would be visibly diminished.

I have heard people who support the proposed law on radio interviews. Sometimes they are offering their reasons for banning the homeless from traffic intersections while I am stopped at a red light and encountering those same homeless people with their signs and outstretched hands palms up. The primary rationale I have heard to support the ban of the homeless poor from traffic intersections is that it will protect these ill-clothed men and women, with their homeless signs and their outstretched hands palms up, from being hit by moving cars.

A McLin/Flickr
Source: A McLin/Flickr

I don't know if these American homeless street beggars have suffered statistically significant more car injuries than anyone else. I suppose it is possible. Regardless, the effect of such a ban would be to make the homeless, and other human evidence of poverty and need, less visible. It would amount to a legally imposed equivalent of Mike's wish not to be confronted with the unpleasant sight of the street beggars of Mumbai.

It seems to me important that we face the moral dilemma. Even if we should choose not to give to the homeless beggars at traffic intersections, who are at core much the same as the impoverished in Mumbai, we will at least have stared into the eyes of a dreadful human social problem. We will not have pretended that these suffering human beings don't exist.