It has become a recent trend in Canadian urban centres to combat panhandling by installing so-called “charity metres.” These metres are on-street receptacles for small change donations styled after parking metres. Sometimes they are attached to parking metres themselves. Edmonton and Ottawa have them, cities like Windsor and Halifax have considered them. My own Peterborough had a few installed back in 2011. The idea is to deter panhandling while still encouraging donations to programs that help the poor.
I guess it works something like this: you see a panhandler, you feel compassion, but then you slip a loonie into a cold machine instead of the individual’s hand, communicating that you’re a really nice person and would like to help, though it would be nice if this bum got out of your way.
I find this to be a pretty disturbing trend.
First, even suggesting that we should remove our panhandlers from the streets is ignorant of the fact that they have no where else to go. They’re homeless. Panhandlers are not downtown because that is the most lucrative market for panhandling, they are downtown because that is where they live.
Second, the kind of social programming that these charity metres might finance will only help those who are able to navigate the systems and bureaucracies through which they are administered. Not all of them can. They may have literacy or mobility issues, they may be ineligible for aid, or they may be scared. For many, I expect that on-street handouts are the only way to effectively get them aid. You have to meet people where they are.
Third, and probably most obviously, you cannot institutionalize and administer something as human as compassion. On-street giving is not a heartless economic transfer, it is an interaction with a human. Many panhandlers are just as interested in conversation as they are in money. Charity metres reduce aid to a purely economic transaction, when in fact it is the establishment of a relationship between humans, hopefully a friendship.
Lastly, our poor must remain visible. To replace them with machinery is to risk forgetting them.
In a capitalist economy such as ours, I believe the two most respectable and honourable ways of making a living are subsistence farming and begging. These are the only ways to produce one’s livelihood without helping to grow an economy that pollutes our environment and our souls. It is interesting that when framed in a religious context begging is often highly esteemed (as in certain forms of Buddhism) but when practiced without any religious system backing it up, it is derided.
When I give to a beggar, I feel two things. First, I feel something like sadness and regret at the fact that we as a society have failed to lift up our poor, along with hope (perhaps a crazy and reckless hope) that my loonie may help in some small way. But I also envy the beggar’s courage. I wish that I had the strength and the faith to rely on the benevolence of the universe and my fellows in it for my survival. I wish I could do away with my own striving for material well-being. And I remember that it is better to receive than to give.
This, of course, is to romanticize the poor. They do not live in some blessed idleness, but are often plagued by various demeaning social ills that we should work to eradicate. They are not Buddha. Still though, they serve to remind us of the value of inactivity, and the meaninglessness of our struggle to earn. For that reason alone, I appreciate their presence.