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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

Urban Etiquette: Is it bad manners to turn down panhandlers?

Is there a rule of etiquette I can follow, so I don’t have to think about this every time I'm asked?

Ani Castillo

Dear Ellen,

Every time I got to the liquor store, there is someone out front begging for money. If a have a loonie or toonie in my pocket, I might give it to them. But usually I’m in a hurry, or I don’t have cash, or I resent the fact that one regular beggar is better dressed than me. Either way I feel irritated when I give and guilty if I don’t. Is there a rule of etiquette I can follow, so I don’t have to think about this every time?

T.K., Toronto

Dear T.K.,

Though this particular topic may be more of an ethics question than an etiquette one, the two areas overlap, and I don’t agree with most of the ethics “experts” pontificating online, so I’ll weigh in.

I also wonder if we go to the same liquor store. Does your well-dressed guy wear newish-looking jeans and a leather jacket? I never give him money. There’s also a guy who plays a little guitar and sings so badly, I’m tempted to pay him to be quiet. Then there’s the older woman who’s clearly down and out, and doesn’t seem to be fully compos mentis. Her I give to, because she seems the neediest, and the least likely to know how to take advantage of government and charitable services — which “experts” say is where you should donate money. Their reasoning is that if you give money to beggars, they’ll probably just spend it on drugs or booze instead of buying something sensible that will help them get a job and a home.

That's pretty rich — coming out of the liquor store and denying an impoverished person the chance to also have a drink. It’s also blatantly ridiculous — do these so-called experts really think the few bucks a pan handler might collect each day is going to pay for rent, or job training, or clothes and grooming for an interview, or a cellphone so they can google-map the nearest psychiatric hospital?

I don’t usually agree with the guy who runs a multi-billion-dollar organization that openly discriminates against women and harbours known criminals. But I agreed with Pope Francis when, as recently reported in The New York Times, he was asked about giving money to people who might spend it on wine, and answered: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s okay. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?”

It’s not wrong, etiquette-wise, not to give money to beggars. It’s your choice, you have your reasons, and it’s no one else’s business. I do think it’s unethical to be a hypocrite about it. As with all proper etiquette, the rule is to treat fellow human beings with respect.

So the next time you’re stocking up and someone asks for spare change, look them in the eye with a friendly shake of the head if you choose not to give. And give them a smile and a greeting if you do. Sometimes that brief interaction can be as valuable to them as the cash.

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