I’m a frequent stroller of Lambton Quay. In business it’s commonly said that it’s the best networking mile in the country.
On most occasions these days, it’s inevitable to see a street beggar or two huddled against a shop wall, head bowed, a scrawled message on cardboard and a container with a few coins.
It’s easy to walk by and content oneself that to look the other way is to give them the justice they deserve. They have choices and in this country, why do we have beggars at all? They’re probably drug addicts, drunks and thieves who don’t deserve any sympathy. Or worse still, they hoard the money and are in fact begging to steel.
Today on one of my strolls I dropped in on my daughter for a coffee. She told me that she’d walked past a beggar earlier in the week, as she often did. But something stopped her in her tracks and she went back to say hi. As she got into a conversation she discovered the young man to be softly spoken, gentle and articulate. How, she wondered had this man become so destitute?
She learned that Philip (name changed) had grown up with a brutal father and had suffered a serious injury as an adult. He was blind in one eye, had suffered from depression but was gladly accepting medication, his partner had abandoned him and he missed his two children terribly.
My daughter’s instincts told her this man was honourable and she walked him off to shout him lunch in a cafe. She described the conversation as one of life’s more rewarding experiences. Philip was hungry but he ignored his lunch for more than an hour while he told his life story. It was obvious to my daughter that Philip simply longed for a little company and human kindness.
It is so easy to assume that beggars are something less than human, to assume the worst. Perhaps in part this is a way to turn our backs and walk by. Of course many will say that it’s a bottomless pit; as soon as we give something or stop and talk, we legitimise their status and encourage them to beg all the more. Move them on and hide them at the City Mission.
So feeling inspired by my daughter’s story, on leaving her I encountered a different young man begging in lower Lambton Quay. For the first time I stopped to say hello. What followed was one of the most interesting and rewarding conversations it’s possible to have in only 5 minutes. His broken teeth yielded a pleasant smile from what had begun as a dark dungeon. At the end of the conversation he pulled from his bag an A4 Government brochure detailing a strategy to deal with ‘homeless people’. “Recommended reading I think” he said quietly.
I popped a few dollars into his hat and said I’d say hi if I saw him again. His smile and thanks gave more reward than a few dollars were worth.
My final thought is this. We reward no one if we ignore the suffering of others. But stopping for a conversation and briefly sharing a little kindness costs nothing, yet most of the rewards come to us. I’d hope that more people stop and chat to people begging. I suspect that might be the better way to seeing less of them on the street, than turning away and pretending they don’t exist ever will.
Fraser Carson is a FRESCO partner and the founder of Flightdec.com and Issues.co.nz. He is a developer and commentator on online and community building issues with a particular interest and involvement in the Collective Impact method of working cooperatively.