Give dignity, not just dollars

Travis Knoll

“Drag rats” and panhandlers soliciting money on Guadalupe Street are a daily sight for most UT students. As I was walking along the Drag recently, a blind man approached me and asked me for some money to get a taxi to the Texas School for the Blind on 45th Street. He claimed a car had hit him and his cane was broken. Figuring that he might be telling the truth — the address he had given me was the school’s actual address — I offered to walk him to St. Austin’s Catholic Church or the University Catholic Center to call for a taxi instead of hailing one on the street. I could then make sure that everyone knew where he was supposed to be going and possibly help him out with any other needs. He didn’t take too kindly to this suggestion, asking me to have “trust in humanity and him” that he would call the taxi.

Out of frustration at my insistence that I wanted to help but did not want to simply give cash, he ran out into the middle of the street screaming, “Does anyone in this world give a damn about a blind man?” Luckily he wasn’t harmed and got only some bewildered looks from passersby. I was saddened by his refusal of help, but I couldn’t help wondering whether in a sense the man was right. I don’t think we should satiate our guilty consciences by forking over pocket change, but this man’s scream speaks to our need to ignore the periphery.

Are we called to help people?

Daniel Bonevac, a UT philosophy professor who studies ethics, believes we need a careful balance. “Although you can’t help everyone, the obligation of charity is a real obligation … a general obligation [irrespective of religion],” he says. Bonevac recognizes that some can make hundreds of dollars a day off of panhandling, but he challenges us not to take the easy way out. “A rabbinical saying states that it’s better to give to five con artists than to not give to one person in need,” he says.

I asked him how to avoid endangering the beggar, such as inadvertently giving money for drug use. Bonevac encouraged buying food and goods that are not easily traded. He adds that he tends to take extra steps to ensure that people have roofs over their heads, noting, “I currently have someone staying at my house that would be homeless otherwise.” 

Bonevac says that recognizing the dignity of the individual by engaging with him or her also extends to how we think about the political sphere. He believes that nonprofits and churches should not merely take a back seat while handing their responsibilities over to government, but should fill in the cracks that government misses. “When local organizations go in, they know the needs of the community. While it’s a necessary actor, the federal government is too large to be able to know all of the specifics.” Bonevac is not alone in this belief. When the newly-elected Pope Francis resided in Argentina as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he reportedly visited slums weekly and contrasted between what he saw as social programs that merely take into account people’s most basic physical needs, and the real work of community solidarity and engagement that goes a step further by acknowledging the individual.

Most people agree that we should give, but Bonevac, like Pope Francis, calls us not just to feed the poor. Rather, they charge us to be present for the marginalized, whether by sitting down for a quick conversation on the Drag, or even with a split second of eye contact. One thing is for sure: We should not push uncomfortable realities aside and bury our guilt by “giving a dollar when we pass.”  The next time someone asks you for a dollar, give your attention and your time instead.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.