"Alone, even doing nothing, you do not waste your time. You do, almost always, in company. No encounter with yourself can be altogether sterile: Something necessarily emerges, even if only the hope of some day meeting yourself again." (E.M. Cioran)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Spare Change

It's become increasingly common to see people begging on Sydney's streets - often accompanied by pets and partners. Somehow, I feel a bit awkward bringing this issue up here - even a bit guilty - as if I'm somehow exploiting the fact. But then again, it's just something I've noticed for quite a while now and it brings up mixed reactions in me.
The first time I noticed someone sitting on the street, holding up - as they usually do - a cardboard sign with details of their plight, was around 1995. He was a fairly young guy - kind of bedraggled - and his sign said that he had been offered a job in Melbourne and was trying to raise the fare to travel there and take it up as soon as possible. A couple of months later, I saw him again - with exactly the same sign. Huh? I was out and about with a DAT recorder at the time, recording 'vox pops' for a university radio project I was undertaking. Without really thinking beyond my mission to record people's opinions and thoughts on the street, I fronted up to him with my microphone and asked him what had happened with the job he'd been offered, saying that I'd noticed him those months earlier. He was furious with me and basically told me to get lost. Instantly, I realised that his sign was merely a front for a new type of scam and I felt foolish. I also felt like a bitch.
When I see people begging, I have to admit that I somehow feel resentful of them. But why? While I try to be a compassionate, non-judgmental person, clearly I am judging these people and I am forced to question myself. I guess it's partly because it seems undignified, when we have a social security system that provides modest living expenses for those who, for whatever reason, can't provide for themselves. It's also irritating because I can see that, for most of them, they are clearly just supporting drug habits and their signs belie this truth. Also, I recently saw an article on TV about one such beggar - who, rather than holding up a sign, crouches on his splayed knees outside the main entrance to the Myer department store with his head down and arms outstretched, holding a cap - in which it was revealed he makes $50,000 per annum. WTF! I guess it also bugs me to see people fall for it - helping it to rapidly become such a lucrative option - appealing to people's sense of pity and guilt in relation to their own comfortable lifestyles, whilst giving them a sense of gratification that they're 'giving something back' - in turn feeling better about themselves when they toss a coin down.
What is most disturbing about all this really is my bourgeois reaction - in that it bothers me at all and that I'm even writing about it here. However, to be fair, much of my reaction is due to the fact that this begging doesn't actually change anything. It doesn't change the fact that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. It doesn't change society or the system and its inequalities and injustices. It doesn't make taxpayers feel less resentful about their money being used to support those who can't (or won't) find work. It's more just a part of (indeed a result of) the system itself.
From now on, I'm shifting my thinking. If someone wants to beg all day and makes good money, all power to them!

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