To give or not to give?
Spain has a very rich tradition of alms' seeking (pedir limosna). Let's be blunt: begging. The traditional Spanish beggar plants him or herself at the door of a church and seeks the charity of people entering or leaving the temple. Some are vocal and others advertise their horrible plight with cardboard signs (I'm out of work, have four children who are hungry, and so on). Spain is now a wealthy nation firmly established in the Euro zone, so you might think that this practice would have disappeared. Not at all. The traditional Spanish beggars, of whom indeed there are surely far fewer than in generations past, have been joined in recent years by immigrants from the East, many of whom are Rumanian. The practitioners of this profession are quite varied, but seem mainly to fall into one of a few standard categories: the low-bottom alcoholic male, the mentally ill, the female who is clearly part of an organized group, the physically handicapped... But I'm not an anthropologist and and not really interested in trying to sort this out. In our neighborhood there is usually someone at the door of the local supermarket (not too much business at the churches these days), often a man of indeterminate age who is confined to a wheelchair. He spends his time with two younger men and the three of them pass their days drinking. Drink, drink, drink. They are homeless, unemployable, and likely mentally ill. Do I make a donation? I'm supposed to help, but I tend to believe that if I give them money I'm just contributing to an ongoing problem. (For the most part I don't give them anything, but a couple of times I have.) Where are the social services? I suspect these men have refused offers of help, that they prefer the street to an institutional setting, where they wouldn't be allowed to drink. But that's just speculation, the truth is I don't know. A couple of times I've tried to engage them in conversation but we never get anywhere. I tell them that, correctly or incorrectly, I do not want to make financial contributions to the maintenance of their addiction. The conversations have not prospered, so now I just look the other way. I don't feel good about that. An alcoholic who is not ready to put the bottle down should not be denied help. (Of course, many would argue that you can't help an alcoholic who doesn't want to be helped; true, in terms of treating the addiction, but sometimes there are even more basic needs that have to be addressed first.) Maybe we should have inpatient clinics where these guys (it's almost always men) can do some supervised drinking (that'll get them in the doors!) as a means of at least getting them off the street. The saddest and most tragic thing is to witness the complete loss of personal dignity in some of these men, manifested exteriorly in a total abandonment of even the most minimal personal hygiene. What are we without our dignity?