Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Gift from a Beggar

We’d arrived in Berkeley in the late fall of 1978. Little did we know this would be a historically significant time in the San Francisco Bay area. In only a week, the mass murder-suicide in Jonestown (of a cult whose roots were in the East Bay) would permeate the air. That foreshock lasted but nine days, when a supervisor in San Francisco’s city hall would shoot the mayor and the first openly gay supervisor, and the bay area ground would be rattled not by a physical, but an emotional quake.

My then boyfriend and I knew about the danger of earthquakes, and chose to move to the area anyway. We knew about San Francisco and Berkeley’s reputation as a social vanguard. If that included the sort of madness that engulfed and thickened the air everyone breathed, we had to take the good with the bad. We were new, and chucked it to The California Experience.

But that was not what we noticed most. From the very first day, what struck us  was how many people lived on the streets and how many were begging for spare change. We had lived in Ithaca, New York, for four years. We never saw street people there. The climate and the town’s people were inhospitable to such. I had seen beggars before, not only in movies but also in Jerusalem, where I grew up. These were blind, old, broken bodied people. They had their corner in downtown Jerusalem, and anyone could see they could not support themselves any other way. We never passed them without putting change into their tins. 

But Berkeley was full of young seemingly healthy and energetic beggars. This, more than the maddening news, struck us as peculiar. We assumed every one of them was in real need, for who in their right mind would spend their days asking for money if they could work?

And so we gave. And gave. And whenever asked, which was often, we gave again. If we didn’t have spare pocket change, we gave bills from our wallets.

A couple of months later, we had become jaded. New acquaintances informed us that most of the local beggars were drug addicts, and that our giving only perpetuated their habit. We stopped giving. In addition, our own funds were running low. It would be a few more months before we found jobs, and we had rent to pay.

Until one day, when a young beggar approached us on Telegraph Avenue, right by the intersection of Dwight Way, asking for spare change.
“Sorry, Man. We’re broke,” my boyfriend said. That was not literally true, but felt like it was in our near future.
The beggar stuck his hand into his deep pants’ pocket and doled a fistful of change. “Please take that,” he said. “You’re more broke. I had a good day.”
We tried to refuse, but he tried harder. He would not let us leave without taking some of his “spare.”

I don’t know what the answer is. But, forty years later, even as I continue to mostly pass local beggars by without giving, once in a while I see that beggar’s face and pull my pocket change out.


  1. Really, really love this post, dear Mirka!!

  2. Really, really love this post, dear Mirka!!

  3. This story has all the feels. Seattle has a similar problem. It is so hard to know who we might be enabling to continue with their drug or alcoholism and who needs it for food. I often think of a dear one who might be on the streets if it weren't for the kindness of others. It doesn't even matter what the problem is; even to alleviate suffering for a few moments feels like the right thing to do. Bless you.

  4. It's a hard question. Lexington has oodles of street people and oodles of beggars. We had a police officer come talk with our women's church group. He said Lexington is considered one of the best places in the country to be as a homeless person, because we provide so many services to them. He said he was talking with one homeless person from Seattle and asked how he ended up in Lexington. The man said he got on the internet and Googled the best place for a homeless person, and it said Lexington. So there he was. The police officer told us not to give money to the beggars, because we'd likely be helping them die from an overdose, that if they are hungry there are plenty of places in our city that will give them food. Our church helps provide services for the homeless and we support those, but we follow the advice of the officer regarding those begging for money on the street corners, because we figure he interacts with the homeless every day and knows what goes on better than we do.

  5. Great time-traveling post! I've been scammed by people living on the street before; I'm a sucker for young people the age of my own kids. But it's hard sometimes to turn a blind eye.

  6. Several years ago I visited my daughter while she was in grad school at Berkeley. The homeless people around the campus were aggressive and frightening. I think many of them struggle with mental illness.


  7. What a thought provoking post. I struggle with this often, especially when I visit my hometown of Chicago. My sisters, all born again Christians (I'm a lazy Catholic) never give to beggars and always assume they are con-people but life is not so black and white for me. So I give, hoping that it helps in some small way, grateful that none of mine are on the streets. There is no one in which, I have nothing in common with.

  8. In my former neighbourhood, we used to walk Echo in a very ritzy part of town with cafe patios and boutiques. It was a nice place for beggars to find a spot of sidewalk. We would encounter the same people night after night.

    We got to sense which ones were truly needy and which weren't. We befriended one regular, Paula, who was a former addict and had trouble finding work. Once Echo took a bite out of her apple while we were talking to her! (We gave her five dollars, apologizing profusely.)

  9. I've seen people with signs begging for food. For some reason, I feel more willing to give to them than those asking for money. Not sure why.

  10. Thanks for sharing this story, Mirka. It's hard to know what is best sometimes. I'm glad to hear of cities like Lexington that provide quality services for the homeless. I have heard it is best to support those services because the money goes a longer way and helps more people. But what an incredible gesture from the man you met who felt he had change to spare.

  11. What a thoughtful story, Mirka. In our town, the city recently cracked down on panhandling and highlighted the services the city offers to people living on the streets. People still stand on street corners with their signs and ask for money. We see a lot of the same faces around. I don't usually carry cash around with me (and when I do, it's usually larger bills), so I don't give. I try to give to local charities when I have the money for donations. It's so hard to know how to do the "right" thing.

  12. Lovely post on a difficult topic. It's so hard to know who really needs help. Even in the suburbs, there are people planted at mall entrances with signs (and phones, and good coats). They are there day after day and it makes you wonder.