We were walking up Columbus to breakfast this morning. As we came to a corner, a well-dressed Asian man came out of a coffee shop carrying two steaming cups. A gaunt beggar stepped toward him and held out his hand saying, “Can you lend me some money for breakfast?”

The Asian man threw back his head and laughed loudly. “That’s funny,” he said, striding away. He laughed again.

“I hope you’re never poor and hungry,” the beggar muttered under his breath. His eyes caught mine. “Can you lend me some money for breakfast?” he asked. I looked away and walked on, embarrassed.

The streets of San Francisco are filled with beggars. Portland has them, too, but not like this. Here there seem to be one or two on every block. (I know that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how it feels.) In Portland they’re mostly scraggly older white men. Here they come in every age, type, and color.

Off the top of my head, I’ve seen:

  • A man in a wheelchair selling his “art” along Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • A man in Haight-Ashbury holding a cardboard sign reading “Need $ for Weed”. He was gregarious, stopping people to chat with them. He was making a lot of money.
  • Another man holding a sign that said “Dollars for Booze”
  • A grizzled middle-aged man sprawled on Haight, disoriented. Another beggar was crouching next to him. “You okay, man?” he was saying. “I’ll get you help. Here’s all I’ve made today.” And he poured his coins into the other man’s cup. The sick man tried to hug him. “I’ll be back with help,” said the benevolent beggar.
  • In Chinatown, every block had an old Chinese man playing a two-stringed bowed instrument (something from the erhu family?). The streets were filled with strange music.

Beggars are a moral quandary for me. I want to help. In an ideal world, I’d help them all. Or I’d at least help those who are legitimately in trouble. But how can I tell which beggars are truly needy, and which are just going to use the money for booze or pot? Does it matter? And who am I to judge?

It might seem silly to write about this — it’s such a trivial part of personal finance (if a part of it at all) — but I think it presents important moral implications. I know many people are opposed to giving money to beggars ever, and I cannot blame them. I’m always reminded of one of my favorite Bible passages, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), which reads in part:

For I hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

Last night I was in a great mood. I’d just had a great meal — clam chowder, fresh crab, a few ribs — and was walking back to the hotel. I passed a one-eyed black man holding a styrofoam cup outside a 7-11. “Change?” he whispered. “Change?” I stopped, pivoted, dug in my pocket and gave him all the change I’ve accumulated on this trip so far. “God bless you, brother,” the man whispered. And I walked on.

I wish I could do more.

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