Begging Your Pardon
I was speaking to Phillip last night. You know Phillip. He’s one of Melbourne’s most active homeless people. Yes, one of those slurring, dishevelled characters imploring you to give them money while you are strolling down the city streets, off to buy a $17 cocktail at some dimly lit bar you read about on your MacBook. Phillip is one of the local beggars.
His story, that I have heard develop over the past few months, involves his inability to get Centrelink payments because he doesn’t have a permanent address. This is why he needs $3 from you so he can make the $26 it costs to get a room for the night. Once he makes that, he’ll mention that he just needs a bit more money for a meal now. You’re his only source of income.
Since I was first asked for change on Brunswick St, back when I was about 15, I adopted the philosophy that I still use today: having this money won’t make a big difference to my life, but it may someone else. The question that then arises is what are they using it for?
Some people are strict about only giving money to beggars who look like they aren’t on drugs or who seem to genuinely need it. Whatever ‘genuinely’ means. For some time I would only ever offer to buy the begging person a meal but would not giving them money directly. I’ve since abandoned such a condition. I don’t walk into Jack London, buy a pair of jeans, then specify that the manufacturers can only spend the income on food and not crack to snort up their sinuses at their end of year Christmas party. Although many wealthy business people destroy their lives with drugs and alcohol, we don’t demand that the money we give them is spent on things we are personally comfortable with.
I do accept that the transaction certainly feels less moral when we are in direct contact with a person who seems to want our money for substance abuse. Yet personally I can’t justify enforcing my opinion on how someone else should live their life, just because they are homeless or poor. In my view, life is indeed a transient experience we all grapple with in our own way. Who am I to assume that my balanced, well intentioned approach to it is right way? I’d pull the pin on my financial contributions if I felt it was funding something that causes suffering. Aside from that, it’s just an income for another human being living out their life in our big, hedonistic metropolis.
I happily use the term ‘income’ here because these Melbourne beggars, homeless or otherwise, are offering a service that we pay for just like any other business. They provide us with temporary relief from our bourgeois guilt about having more than we need to survive. If you don’t feel that you will experience emotional fulfilment in return, then don’t buy that service.
As for our friend Phillip he, like the rest of us, works for his income. He spends it on both necessities and the six-pack of Fosters I saw him chucking down the other night. The only judgement we should pass on him, as far as I am concerned, is that he has horrendous taste in beer.
Check back weekly for Moral Melbourne with @MrSimonTaylor (Twitter)