By Holly Herring
Beggars can’t be choosy.
When I was young, I would often hear this phrase used. Generally it was when I was pleading for something like chocolate ice cream but we only had vanilla. A grown up would often say to me, “beggars can’t be choosers.” As someone who works in homeless services, I am starting to realize just how dangerous this phrase is.
I was speaking to someone about their circumstances recently.
They lived outside and they were cold and wet from the previous night’s rain. I mentioned that I had some items with me—a couple jackets—and asked if they wanted to take a look and see if one fit. Admittedly, the jackets came from a used clothes donation and were men’s jackets.
The woman looked at the two jackets I had to offer and I could see the look of disappointment on her face. Then she changed her expression to a more neutral look as she made eye contact with me. She said, “I was hoping for a white jacket…maybe with a hood. But either of these will do. Beggars can’t be choosers.” She grabbed an old olive green jacket that was at least two sizes too big and put on a forced smile as she thanked me.
Once a family came to me about their adult child and they were giving me information about him so that if I was successful in finding his camp, I would have sufficient tools to make him feel comfortable in talking with me—a stranger. His sister said, “He’s a vegan. He is probably really hungry because people give him food, but it’s usually burgers and stuff.”
When I located his camp and introduced myself I asked him if he was hungry.
He didn’t respond with a yes or a no, he just looked at the bag I held in my hand, squinting his eyes and leaning forward, so he could determine exactly what was in the bag. I told him that everything in the bag was vegan and he immediately relaxed and reached out for the bag. He looked at me and said, “I know that beggars can’t be choosers, but I really didn’t want to have to eat meat again. I’m so relieved this isn’t meat.”
The people I serve live outside.
They receive insults hurled at them from moving cars, they have regular negative contact with law enforcement and often their friends and family no longer associate with them. By the time I enter the picture, I’m not hearing them saying many positive things about themselves. It hurts to hear these people in particular tell me that, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
Now, I believe that homelessness is actually a symptom.
Homelessness, I think, is a condition resulting from things like oppression, systemic racism, a lack of affordable housing and low wages. These are individuals who aren’t being offered a lot of choices. People experiencing these conditions tend to start looking down on themselves.
When given threadbare clothing and the leftovers from someone else’s meal, it’s hard to feel worthy of anything more than that. When people start becoming empowered, either again or for the first time, I can almost see the spark of determination in their eyes. That spark is what sets off a chain of events that is necessary to resolve one’s homelessness.
I’m seeing a movement in spirituality to move away from the word begging. It used to be that I heard of monks “begging” and now I hear more often they are “accepting alms.” The negative connotation of the word “begging” is being recognized more widely and changes are being made.
We recognize that begging is not very empowering. So, what are we to do when giving food or goods to people who need them?
I think it helps a person to give them food when they are hungry and clothing when they are cold, however, I think it is more helpful to give a person a choice when we offer them the food and clothing they need. Imagine being handed a bag of food from a fast food restaurant, but accepting it blindly out of fear of being looked down on or appearing ungrateful for asking about its contents.
Next, imagine being asked to come inside a fast food restaurant to order what you would like to eat and then being handed exactly what you ordered. Imagine accepting an item of clothing that’s far too large for you and that looks drab just because you’re cold and another opportunity for warmth might not come. Now imagine being handed a store gift certificate and instructions to go pick out what fits you and meets your needs and style. There are opportunities to empower other human beings around every corner.
When an individual sees oneself as worthy of having choices then they start looking at their circumstances and start making choices there too.
They might choose not to allow another person to abuse them. They might choose to apply for a job they never felt qualified for before. They might choose to walk up to the door of a social service organization and ask for help getting their needs met–because they feel worthy of this service.
I think resolving issues like homelessness involves making choosers out of beggars and not the other way around.
Holly has bonded her spirituality to her activism. She began her relationship with Buddhism through Fo Guang Shan, an international Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist organization and monastic order based in Taiwan that practices Humanistic Buddhism. However, she finds herself more aligned with Stephen Batchelor’s more secular Buddhism currently. Holly works in homeless services and is very passionate about promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as eliminating stigma about homelessness and behavioral health.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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