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If you feel bad or angry, at least look beggars in the eye

Fr Michael Cusack from St Joseph's Redemptorist Church in Dundalk has a problem. He's trying to figure out what to do about the beggars.

Not just ordinary beggars, but the drug addicts who use the Church toilet for shooting up. He doesn't want to close the toilets, but he's afraid a praying pensioner will be attacked.

While he figures out how to protect his parishioners, he's advised people not to give money to beggars on the street.

If they want to help, they should give to an organisation like Simon. Giving money directly just fuels addiction and while kind, is misguided.

Cusack is not alone. For every one of us who walks by a beggar, the moral and emotional dilemma is acute.


For several years, I lived in Smithfield, right opposite the Capuchin centre for the homeless. I can honestly say that every single encounter makes me feel bad: always irritated, sometimes angry.

The mere sight of a beggar gets me thinking: "This isn't fair. Why can't I simply walk down the street without having to confront this?" But then I know that this sense of injustice at my discomfort arises from guilt. I don't want my carefully constructed bubble burst.

To cope, I've developed a few rules. First, I never give money to what I perceive to be professional beggars.

I get the sense that there's too much organisation. I'm not a mean person, but I don't want to be taken for a fool.

Secondly, I try to look every beggar in the eye and say, "I'm sorry" or shake my head. This is not easy, but I read somewhere that the worst thing for a beggar is the sense of invisibility.

If you're on the street all day with thousands of people walking by you putting enormous effort into pretending you're not there, there's a terrible feeling of non-existence.

The least I'm required to do as a human being is recognise the humanity of another person. So even if I'm saying "no" I'm saying it nicely and acknowledging their existence. Apparently that's important.

On the big picture stuff I give money to homeless charities and that makes me feel like I'm off the hook.

A Christmas Simon donation is a card I can play in my head to deal with the fact that a person is asking me for help and I'm saying "No". But sometimes that's not enough.

I remember one Christmas walking down South Anne Street. A relatively young Irish woman was wheeling a buggy with a toddler in it, up and down the middle of the street walking right up to people crying and begging for money.

It was a direct emotional encounter and I was furious to be confronted like that. I stormed away, seething with anger that she'd put me - and her child - in that position.

But after ten paces something gave in me. I thought, "Oh for God's sake, if she really had an alternative, would she be out like that, humiliating herself?"


I was single at the time and no responsibilities. So I turned back and gave her €20. She was so grateful and kept saying, "God bless you".

I felt better but still depressed. Who knew what other problems she had in her life? Was I stupid to crack?

But that was the exception. Normally when I give directly to a beggar it's not to those who ask directly, but those poor down and out men who don't ask because they've given up.

This might go back to my time in Smithfield where those kind of men, the hard core homeless depending on the Capuchins, weren't outsiders but part of the community.

They were a stable presence in the area and I got to know which men slept where.

In fact, while people complain Dublin city centre is dangerous now, in those days I never felt intimidated because I knew the street people and they were okay. They weren't terrible people, but lost sheep.

So every now and then I'll buy one of those poor men a cup of tea or a burger.

Last winter, I saw one man who'd just woken up in his sleeping bag. He had a Jack Russell dog with him. He looked so sad and it was so nice that he had the dog.

I bought him a tea and donut and gave him a fiver. He was so surprised when I walked up that I still nearly cry thinking about it. How horrible it must be to live a life where a small kindness is a shock.

I'm ashamed of how rarely I do this. Most of the time I'm like everyone else. I work hard to steel myself against the reality of suffering in a world where some people are grossly rich while others struggle to get another human being to recognise they even exist.