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How should you respond to begging?

Leon Saw

Tue Apr 17 2012

how should you respond to begging

HOW do you respond to strangers asking for change? Is it wrong to say no? Do you feel intimidated to give? Leon Saw ponders the delicate issue and gives his two cents worth.

Whenever I’m out, my bunch of personal keys are always securely fastened to my pants or trousers with a karabiner. The practice was inspired by the unfortunate episode of me getting locked out of my place in the middle of the night, after the contents of my rather shallow pockets had decided to give me the slip while I was out earlier in the evening. So after multiple earfuls from the parents over the ensuing month, I swore to have my keys under, well, lock and key. Except now in Melbourne, this has landed me in rather awkward, if not interesting, situations.

Because of the peculiar manner in which these small pieces of metal, loosely attached to my waist, jingle, as I go about on foot, everyone seems to think that I have a rather large bag of coins on me. Often, I get approached by strangers whom I can only assume are homeless, jobless, needy, or a combination of any, asking for spare change. And upon confessing to not being in possession of any, their earnest, hopeful demeanours mutate into death stares or dirty looks, usually reserved for Wall Street investment bankers, before they walk away.

Now, hailing from Singapore where such activity is considered criminal, it was initially, mildly confronting to witness poverty so openly displayed. The first time such a person asked me for money, I actually entertained the possibility of being mugged should I not accede to the request. But thus far, my encounters have been, thankfully, cordial and polite.

They’ve mostly been normal people who, for whatever reason, seemed to be experiencing a financial rough patch, and could use a bit of help. And they’ve generally accepted rejection, or expressed gratitude for a little of whatever that could be spared. The most one such person did was haggle over the charity, asking for another cigarette, in addition to the one my friend had already given him. My friend didn’t accommodate him twice.

The Melbourne City Council website actually does have some information briefly explaining the situation here, and how one should go about dealing with it.

It offers possible reasons on why people beg, from waiting for or not being eligible to receive welfare payments or income assistance, to wanting to support gambling or drug habits, and acknowledges that certain individuals may be placed in a difficult position if approached for financial assistance by them.

The information on the website then advises if the person begging is “acting aggressively – for example, is intoxicated, intimidating, violent or placing people at risk – you can report the matter to the police by phoning 000”.

However, if that person is “begging in a passive, non-threatening and non-violent manner and you want to help connect them with appropriate services, the City of Melbourne produces a free booklet called Helping Out”.

The booklet, available here, offers “a comprehensive list of free and cheap services including food, accommodation, health services, drug and alcohol services and legal advice from more than 70 organizations throughout the City of Melbourne”.

It’s probably a stretch to have multiple copies of the booklet on hand, whenever you’re about, to present to anyone who asks you for money. But it’ll be good to have a few contact details of some of the aforementioned organisations’ at your finger tips so you can point people in the right direction.

Have you been approached by a person begging on the streets of Melbourne? Share with us your experiences, stories and dilemmas in the comments section below.