Walking down Queen Street in Toronto on a bright sunny day, I hear an inquiry every so often: “Spare change?” I look over and see a person huddled on the sidewalk with an empty coffee cup. Sometimes I reach into my pocket and give the person a loonie, or a quarter or even a toonie. Sometimes, I just say “hello” and move on.
I am not sure why I give money to some and not to others. I try to say hello to everyone who asks for “spare change.” Last week, I was walking in close proximity behind a trio of students. I overheard one person say: “Spare change, what makes him think that anything I have is extra?” The others laughed in agreement and I was left wondering what the question “spare change” really means.
On reflection, I think that the phrase “spare change” is an abbreviation of some much more complex questions:
- Can you spare me from hunger, thirst and homelessness for today with the change you received when you made your last purchase?
- Can you spare me from the humiliation of begging more today so that I can change my posture and I can stand up and walk on the street too?
- Can you spare me from my unfilled yearning for a drug or a drink because I cannot change myself just now?
- Can you spare me from my extreme isolation and change me into a part of your world too?
- Can you spare yourself the fear of me when I am desperate and try to rob you in the changing streets?
I have heard people accuse beggars of misrepresenting themselves. They suggest that the street beggars are all looked after by the government and they have a home and food somewhere and just want extra money. Otherwise the beggars should look for work like everyone else. They are just lazy.
I don’t think so.
Some people are down on their luck through no fault of their own. Others do not have natural talents or accommodating personalities. For these people, finding and keeping work is very difficult. Others are clearly mentally ill. Life can be very tough.
I have also heard that the poor will always be with us. I do not think that it is my job to ignore these individuals or to leave it only to the government or the police or social service agencies to deal with them.
When I am lost and looking for an address, I am so grateful that a stranger on the street takes the time to show me where to go, sometimes even walking me in that direction.
When the bus driver notices that I am running down the sidewalk, trying to catch the bus and stops to wait, I am grateful.
It’s up to each of us as individuals to be responsive to others on the street and hear what they are asking for. We can change and spare the person who is asking for help from some of his frustrations. It would be a better city for our efforts.