Dilemmas: Distinguishing the needy from the greedy

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FACED at a bus stop with what seems to be a well-fed gypsy carrying a baby and note saying she needs money for food, what is the appropriate response? Hand over the cash? Keep your purse firmly shut? Can, or should, you distinguish the needy from the greedy, and how, more importantly, can Sue, who is faced with this problem, explain whatever decision she takes to her 10-year-old half-sister?

It was a question of wanting to set an example of generosity to the child while at the same time discouraging her from giving freely to any con-artist.

Although few readers had hammered out a policy on giving to beggars, there was a host of thoughts and experiences that, if shared with the half-sister, would have at least made her realise that there were no black or white answers. One day she would have to make up her mind about such matters herself. Indeed, Laura Jones's seven-year-old son, Mark, was obliged by his mother to do just that.

'I refused to give money to a young man begging, and explained that was because I felt the money would go on drink or drugs and not on decent food or accommodation,' Mrs Jones wrote. 'Mark kept on about the incident. He knew I had money in my purse and was cross that I wouldn't give some away. In the end I gave Mark a pounds 5 note - explaining this was five weeks' pocket money that he could spend or save as he pleased.

'Letting him decide what to do certainly made him think of the problem in another perspective. After half an hour of thought he asked: 'Do you think he would give me some change?' I said I thought not, so he decided to keep the money for himself.'

Some might feel that seven is too young to deal with such a complex problem and that it might have been simpler to advance Mark 50p rather than pounds 5, but Mrs Jones did well to involve her son in the whole dilemma.

'Ten years old is a good time to learn that con men and women exist and that they are what they are because they seem so genuine,' wrote Mrs Bell of Bath. 'Therefore you have to try to make a judgement. Nowadays it is impossible to walk around without being asked for money, and unless you are rich you cannot give to everyone. Learn to judge - if one person in a dozen begs, but says 'please', you may be sympathetic and give.'

Many readers explained that they would not give because experience told them that such women were con-artists. Brian French of Altrincham, Manchester, suggested that the woman was not a gypsy from central Europe and probably not even the mother of the child. 'I've seen a travelling family cleverly ring the changes on the 'mother and child' and 'motherless children' ploys while working a crowd.'

And Andy Atkins from Cap d'Ail, France, remembered a 'superb gypsy girl of about 19, with raven hair and flashing eyes full of intelligence and cunning' in southern Spain. Sometimes she carried a baby, sometimes not. 'We found out later that she belonged to a band of four girl beggars who shared the baby on a rota system as a prop to gain sympathy.' He and his friends refused to give money, but offered to buy her food - a suggestion met with fury and invective. 'But outside her role of beggar she was quite an interesting and lively personality, and a sort of relationship built up, which on our last day made parting sorrowful on our side and tearful on hers.' At least they had the time and kindness to offer friendship, if not money.

Sandra Howarth of Aberdeen pointed out that the Government is so skinflint about giving money to the needy that everyone needs to work out some kind of 'charitable spend' of their own. She would explain to her half-sister that she gave to charities such as the NSPCC, and that she had made it a policy not to give to people on the streets unless they were providing entertainment or offering something, however small, in return.

Others felt that giving should not be dependent on receiving. Mrs Vivien Alder of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, marshalled her arguments for giving clearly. 'First, what does Sue have to lose? She could give a small amount, say 20p. Second, it would be a blatant example to the child of selfishness not to respond to a human need. Third, to refuse would be to encourage cynicism. In short, it is better to err on the side of kindness.'

Andy Atkins's Spanish encounter showed that offering food rather than money can sort out genuine cases. After giving a child money for her mother and seeing the family leap into a taxi, David Wilding, from Bridge, near Canterbury, now adopts the same policy. 'If a woman comes up to you asking for food for her baby, offer to buy them a meal or take them to a supermarket and buy them groceries . . . It is easy to be cynical, but many people fall below the system, and it is your duty to help where possible.'

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