Here at The University of Texas at Austin we have a little sector just outside of the university called "The Drag." If you're familiar with Austin I'm referring to the stretch of "Guadalupe" (which Texans pronounce as "Gwa-da-loop") that runs parallel to the university. It's where you find the student bookstore, lots of hip little restaurants, cafes and bars, an American Apparel and Urban Outfitters with hipster garb-galore, vintage shops, and so on. Also where lots of buses run and have stops, and I happen to walk through it nearly everyday on my way to school.
It's also where you find a lot of people pan-handling for money. Why they choose this sector? I don't know. I personally am offended when someone hits me up for money every single day. Usually the person is barely older than me, with some punk haircut and piercings with combat boots and cigarette stains on their fingernails. I want to say, Why me? We barely make ends meet enough as it is, and as selfish as this sounds any extra pennies, even, get saved to go toward my step-daughter's Chilean school, since it costs an arm and a leg. My husband and I do donate money, but we unfortunately can't donate as much as we'd like, and I'd certainly rather give it to established programs rather than to people on the street.
Occasionally, though, there will be someone who is even more bold than passively saying, "Do you have a little spare change," which really doesn't bother me that much. They will follow you, calling out, "Miss!!!" (like what happened to me yesterday).
Or even worse, a few days prior, a young, clean-cut looking guy standing on a corner next to an ATM, actually called out to me, saying, "Hey! You with the furry hood! You dropped something!"
I spun around, and glanced at the street behind me seeing nothing I had dropped and made eye contact with him. He then called out, "I just have a question, I promise I'm not a bum on the street!"
In a split second I realized that I hadn't dropped anything, that he was lying to get my attention, and the combination of a liar next to an ATM spelled out trouble. I couldn't even help it, as a gut reaction, I gave him a mean look and held up my hand in a stop signal, something I used often in Italy to mean, "Basta!" (Enough!) He immediately turned away and shut up and let me continue on my way.
Continuing my walk, though, I thought about why they target the student population, rather than people who actually have money in more affluent sectors. I speculated that students are probably a lot more naive and likely to give them money. And I realized that my freshman year, never having lived in a city and quite sweet, I probably would have given them money. Prior to living in Santiago, I was quite an idealist. I didn't have much experience living in cities-- in my hometown I can't say I've ever seen someone begging --and thus thought that people begging for money are in critically desperate situations and would have wanted to help.
In Santiago, I passed dozens of mothers breast feeding babies on the metro stairs on my way to work, blind people, people missing limbs... all asking for money, and all probably really needing it. Little old women, children, people playing instruments. Eventually I had to turn off my sympathy, because otherwise I would have given away all of my money. I felt conflicted about this for a while, until I read a quote from Pablo Neruda talking about how he despises beggars because they create the illusion that by giving them money you're actually committing a charitable act and thus making a difference in your society. Probably a bad excuse, but I just had to affix my gaze and push onward each and every time. Eventually it stops affecting you and sadly you reach a point where you hardly notice it anymore.
I do believe that these "beggars" along Guadalupe do need the money in some sense, but when you're a punk kid who stops me on my way to class, you either infuriate me or make me want to laugh in your face. I want to say, "What do you take me as? Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look here in comparison to the woman who used to sit on Manuel Montt with three kids on a tattered blanket... asking for money?" If you're even more "patudo" (probably a scam artist) and actually try and trick me into lending you cash from an ATM I'm sorry but I'm not that dumb! This heart has hardened, my friend.
But yes, I realized that my heart has hardened.
I don't really know what I think about that, but I turned 25 yesterday and I guess I'm a little older and seasoned. I think I have sort of a baby-sweet face which is probably why a lot of those people target me on the street. But dude, I'm old and jaded. Don't bother me, street punks! Let me walk in peace.
Despite the fact that I don't give out spare change on the street, I do like to support organizations or individuals that at least strive to promote a more sustainable social change. I don't know why it has to be fancy, either. Don't forget about your local food banks! At this time of year they are often hard-pressed for nutritious, healthy options. Some even accept produce, so check and see what they most need at this time of year!