Social Question

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Why can beggars not be choosers?

Asked by Simone_De_Beauvoir (38828 points ) July 25th, 2011

Every once in a while I notice the following disturbing (at least to me) trend on the streets and subways of NYC: there will be a homeless or near-homeless/poor person asking people for money, food or clothing/other kinds of help…this will be followed by some person responding (in a grand gesture, for all to see) by giving an item of food or something else that the person asked for…in turn, the beggar will thank them but refuse one or all of the items and provide an explanation re: allergies to a kind of food they were offered or that they are looking for warmer clothing or that they don’t eat meat, or whatever…in closing, the person who provided the item will act supremely offended and indignant that this miserable being dared to speak against something they gave of themselves so selflessly.

This always amazes me really because I just don’t get the anger – was it really that difficult for you to offer your cheeseburger and have it returned back? Do you have to scoff and look around for others to validate you like ‘can you believe that homeless asshole said he doesn’t eat meat’? After all, no harm was done, you had your food returned and the person moved on. Can a beggar not have personal beliefs and ideas or physical reasons for not accepting certain things? These incidents just go to show me how giving, for so many, is all about showing off and expecting and unwarranted amount of thankfullness in return. What do you think?

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24 Answers

tom_g's avatar

I agree with your assessment. Check out this thread. There are some people who seem to resent the homeless as just lazy people who are after “easy money”. I don’t get it.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@tom_g Right, that’s a popular and uninformed response. I hope this thread doesn’t derail into the usual ‘why can’t they just pull themselves up by their boostraps like good ol’ americans, etc.?’

cookieman's avatar

Forty years living in Boston (lots of homeless people) and I have never witnessed that.

In my experience, homeless people just want money – and are thankful for whatever they get. The “givers” (as it were), usually just plunk their change or bills into the receptacle (cup, hat, etc.) and move on. There’s little actual interaction, much less conversation.

Ive been known to give food (coming out of a bagel joint for example), and it was always met with a, “Hey, thanks man” and we moved on.

Guess our homeless/giver relationships just aren’t that chatty here.

jaytkay's avatar

I would be leery of a sandwich some stranger on the street handed me.

thorninmud's avatar

People give for all kinds of reasons, but often they’re looking for a little ego boost. The payoff in this transaction is supposed to be the magnanimous feeling of having made some poor soul’s life a little better. As ego-serving actions go, there are certainly worse, but because ego is behind it, rejection is likely to be taken as an insult.

The ritualized begging that Japanese Buddhist monks do is structured to get around just this problem, because ego involvement is seen as robbing the act of giving of any merit. On their food begging rounds, the monks wear big conical straw hats that mostly conceal the face. The monk will accept whatever is offered, but will never offer any expression of gratitude, and the giver can’t even look for a glint of pleasure in the monk’s face. This is done for the sake of the giver, because if the gift is done with a view toward getting anything—even gratitude—in return, then the giving has been corrupted by ego.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I’m torn.
I mean, I’m not sure that I’ve ever looked at this phrase literally before. I apply it to myself, often. I know that I should take what I can get, in many cases, because I can’t afford to pass up opportunities. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have what I do, and I don’t feel like I’m in a position to be choosy about much of anything.
However, if I offered someone a sandwich and they declined, I can’t imagine being offended or insulted. If anything I would see myself potentially being embarrassed that I may have offended or insulted the person I was attempting to share with.
I think that I agree with you, but I’m a little bit uncertain because of the way that I apply this principle to myself. When I project the scenario out toward someone else I agree with you wholeheartedly. When I point it back at myself, then things get a little hazy.

Did that make sense?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@ANef_is_Enuf It makes sense. A long time ago, when someone rejected food I was going to give them, I felt really pissed off. Then, I realized that for many reasons, people have to be careful about what they’re given to eat. I learned later that, for the homeless, there are dangers in food and that some people give them bad food, food to make them sick, on purpose.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I’ve never been faced with the situation before, so I can’t say for sure how I would react.
I really struggle to imagine myself being angry or offended. Not because I’m some perfect angel of goodness, I just really think that I am that personality type where I would instantly worry that I did something wrong. I don’t know if there is a word for that. I just think that I would feel horrible, not insulted.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

If one is given a gift, it seems rude to not accept it on the spot, regardless of the receiver’s age or financial status. The only exception I can think of is if the offer of a gift, be it an object, money, or time, is discussed.

For example, when there was a death in our family, most friends just brought food over. We accepted their offerings graciously, as it meant something to them to help us out. One woman called and asked, what can I do to help. The first thought was ‘nothing’, but by that time, I realized that it was important to her to do some act of kindness. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to pick up some Dr Pepper for my nephews who would be joining us the next day. And she did.

Sure, beggars can be choosers. They should not be exempt from choosing what they want to eat or wear. However, they shouldn’t be exempt from showing tact and graciousness either. It doesn’t seem that difficult to accept what is offered, thank the giver, and then later give it way to someone else in need.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer I agree with the message behind your words, but I can’t help but wonder if someone can politely and graciously decline a gift if they feel it might go to waste if they take it?
I suspect that those in a position of extreme need are more aware of wastefulness than many of us. I think the less you have the more likely you are to be aware of such things. (Not all, of course, just a generalization.)

Just food for thought. No pun intended.

Brian1946's avatar

I can see where that would apply to people in desperate situations, and that doesn’t necessarily include the homeless. E.g., a guy dying of thirst in the desert can’t afford to pass up a drink of tap water because he prefers Fiji, Arrowhead, or strawberry smoothies.
By contrast, I would fully understand a homeless person who knew that they were severely allergic to seafood not accepting an offer of leftovers from Red Lobster.

However, most of the people that have asked me for anything have only asked for spare money, and they’ve almost always been grateful. I’m sure that some of them were homeless, but some of them were people who just had a temporary lack of funds.

If a person asked me for some spare change, and I offered, “Do you take credit cards?”, I wouldn’t be the least bit offended if that person said, “Sorry ahole, my credit card processing equipment is in my other shopping cart!”. ;-)

We were in Portland last February, and I got some food that I didn’t like. My wife didn’t like it either, but we decided to put it in a take-out container anyway, because we had seen some homeless people on the way to the restaurant.

My wife offered it to a couple camped out near the sidewalk with their sleeping bags, and I sincerely hoped that they liked it, because I don’t like the thought of discarding food when people are going hungry, and I feel the chances of the food not going to waste are better when the recipients actually like what you’ve offered them.
I.e., I would have fully understood if they didn’t like it either, and I don’t expect people to be thankful for something they don’t enjoy or can’t use.

rebbel's avatar

I share your view @Simone_De_Beauvoir, of course they can be picky.
After all, they just ask and the questioned person then has his first decision: shall I give or not give.
If he doesn’t, it’s okay.
If he does, great.
But like in all other situations too, the asker has every right to refuse the gift or to say he prefers soup instead of biscuits.
The questioned, on his turn, has also the right to say: “Bad luck, i haven’t got soup. ”
But for me, once you decided to help someone, be they beggars or subway conductors or firemen, it should be from the heart, not out of showing of.
I once was asked for some change by a homeless woman, to pay for shelter for the night and after I handed what was in my pocket she took a quick glance and asked me if that was all.
I thought it quite cheeky, but also honest.
Unfortunately for her my pockets were empty.

Edit to add: Look at it also from the beggar’s perspective.
First you have to overcome, i assume, a certain degree of embarrassment.
Then ‘all goes alright’, you ask all day, get lots of nos and some yesses.
But you may find yourself with twenty five packages of biscuits at the end of the day, or every day the same two kinds of sandwiches.
Well, I think I also would get a little picky in the end…

ucme's avatar

Any person offended by that response clearly wasn’t being charitable in the first place.
More akin to a self absorbed, egotistical buttfuck, if I may be so bold.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

There is a gentleman named Scotty that used to hang out at the local convenience store during the summer heat. He used to bike over to the shop and sit outside sipping ice water or soda given to him by the cashiers. Occasionally, I’d see him tucked away in a corner of the air-conditioned store behind a display.

One day, on a whim, I bought and offered him a pre-packaged chicken salad sandwich from the store, and he accepted it with a ‘thank-you.’ I chose this type of sandwich because he has no front teeth and thought it might be easier to eat. In hindsight, I have no clue if he ate it, traded it in for another selection, or gave it to someone else. A good intent was there; it might not have been the right effect.

The next time I saw him, he asked me if I would buy him a ham sandwich. At first, I was offended by the request, but then reality kicked in. I bought him his sandwich of choice. I haven’t seen Scotty this summer and hope he is okay.

@ANef_is_Enuf Sure, people can politely and graciously decline a gift. It just seems like there needs to be an existing personal connection in order to make it go over well. It is even better if the giver asks the receiver if they would be interested in the object, whether one knows the person or not. By asking, if it is turned down, there should be no offense taken.

cockswain's avatar

Excellent answers. I agree with all those saying it’s because it robs the “giver” of an ego boost. Guess what, if the homeless dude can’t eat peanuts, deal with it.

Just because they are homeless doesn’t mean they aren’t still humans obviously. But I get the idea of the phrase. I sort of look at it like,
“Hey, can you help me with some yard work this weekend?”
“Yeah, but I’ve only got an hour to spare.”
“Only one hour? Screw you, that’s barely any help at all!”

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

Supacase's avatar

I understand what you are saying and I agree if there is an allergy or something along those lines involved.

Aside from that, the homeless person can accept graciously and then be charitable themselves by passing the food or clothing along to another homeless person who can use it. Especially clothing. Food may spoil before they see someone else someone they know, I doubt anyone else would take food from a homeless person to give it to, but clothing is always welcome at the homeless shelter if they don’t know anyone personally who needs it.

AmWiser's avatar

I think homeless people today can be choosy, because there’s too much available to them (and at their disposal) that they can actually turn down what doesn’t suit them at the moment.

When my Mom put food on the table that we wouldn’t eat, that was it. No raiding the fridge later, no substituting for something else (because we probably didn’t have anything else). My Pop’s would tell us ‘you may not be hungry now, but if you ever get hungry enough, you’ll eat what is available to you right then and there’.

KatawaGrey's avatar

Let’s be honest here. Even for people who can afford to eat three meals every single day and who are getting enough nutrients and are healthy, eating the same stuff or stuff you really don’t like can be very disheartening. It sounds silly, but think back on a time when you had no choice in what you were eating, whether it’s because you didn’t have enough money to incorporate too much variety in your diet, or you were just in a situation where you had little choice. Even if everything else is going well, it can be depressing and boring to eat beef stew for the eleventh night in a row. Now, imagine a time when you’ve eaten a delicious and unexpected meal. No matter how things in the rest of your life are going, a lovely meal can make you feel amazing.

The homeless have very little quality of life. They are always hungry, too cold, too hot, unhealthy, unclean and their entire existence is devoted to survival. If they don’t want another ham sandwich for their fifth meal in a row, then I think they have every right to decline.

One of the reasons why I hesitate to carry pre-made food with me to give to the homeless aside from the fact that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless population is because I don’t know if someone is allergic or has chosen not to eat meat or simply doesn’t like ham sandwiches. I’m also perfectly content to give cash out, despite always hearing, “don’t give the homeless money, they might buy drugs or booze with it!” because, quite frankly, it’s none of my concern if they buy drugs or booze with this cash. They’re homeless! Getting drunk or high may be the only way they can get through the night. Why should I decide that they cannot have their coping mechanism?

flutherother's avatar

It’s a little ill mannered for anyone to refuse a gift.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

From years of living in Sacramento and San Francisco, both with HUGE populations of homeless, I’ve never encountered or observed anyone to turn down anything.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Sweet holy moly, living in the Bay Area I think I have encountered both sides of that equation but more that beggars turn nothing away. I had a beggar asking me if I had change because he was hungry and when I offered to use my card to get him some food, the truth came out that he really just wanted money and didn’t care about the food.

I would never make it a point to be ”showy” when I give anything because that will just make you a mark to any other beggars who see you. I don’t have enough to give to all of them who feel they need help.

This situation could have been handled better overall. If the person received something they didn’t like or could not eat for whatever reason, they could have taken it and given it to one of their homeless or beggar friends. Simply rejecting it could seem like they were insulted because they were not given what ”they wanted of felt they should have had” If you are desperate to get work and someone gives you a job, you don’t complain because you get a lousy ”starter” shift, or position.

The person giving the item if the beggar rejects it, if it is anything like here, there is another close by who would gladly take it.

I think they both could have handled it better.

Zaku's avatar

I think it depends on the situation, and what people are thinking about it, of which there are various possibilities. Some people suspect beggars of exaggerating their poverty, and may interpret refusal of an offer as possibly bogus or a sign that they are being deceived, for example.

Usually though I expect it is because the person offering has an expectation and they are surprised by the reaction, and upset is a very common reaction to disappointment of expectations. The people offering may also be edgy because they are doing something outside their norms, which they may also have some fear or masked resentment about, which gets brought out.

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