For those of you who don’t live in a major city and aren’t constantly beset by the demands of the homeless (or “housing deficient”), here’s a quick primer on the main classes of bums:

1. The Meek
Characteristics: A shy, almost embarrassed approach- The Meek will typically speak to you quietly and in relative privacy, as though they’re ashamed to be overheard asking for money. They typically don’t have much in the way of stories or a reason for their hard times.
Risk Factor: Extremely low. Feel free to berate or roughly brush them aside; bonus points if you project your own fears and anger upon them. They’re like a stress ball made out of sinew and bone.

2. The Grizzled Veteran
Characteristics: Slightly more aggressive, but not pushy, The Grizzled Veterans are always armed with a good story or a joke designed to lower your guard. They typically have rebuttals up their sleeves for any excuses, so keep your wits about you.
Risk Factor: Low. Theirs is a volume industry, so they’re almost as willing to end the exchange as you are. Usually, a “Sorry, I don’t have anything” and a helpless shrug are enough to shake them off. Take care to avoid seeming too sympathetic, though, as the Grizzled Veteran may sense weakness and refuse to release you, their quarry, until you’ve given them money.

3. The Loudmouth
Characteristics: A raised voice, occasionally engaged in song or loudly telling their tales of woe, the better to attract multiple donations in one fell swoop. The Loudmouth is usually more visibly homeless than The Meek or The Grizzled Veteran, who tend to make themselves as presentable as possible in order to avoid being marked as panhandlers on sight.
Risk Factor: Moderate. Some Loudmouths appear to have some sort of mental imbalance, so saying “No” is a risky proposition; The Loudmouth may simply move on, or they may become angry and harass you until you give them money. Choose your course at your own peril.

4. The Fisher
Characteristics: Usually inert, sitting outside of storefronts with a simple sign asking for money. Oftentimes, they are reading, people-watching or even asleep, which makes avoidance much simpler. They are by far the most considerate of the panhandling homeless population. By presenting me with the option to give them money rather than a request or a demand, I give them money when I can, simply because I’m not being put on the spot to do so. Also, they tend to have creative signs, and I value creativity.
Risk Factor: Nil. The Fisher rarely verbally requests money, preferring instead to let their sign do the talking for them.

5. The Stereotype
Characteristics: Strong urine smell, erratic behavior, aggressive demeanor. The Stereotype is the embodiment of the “crazy homeless person” commonly featured in movies and television.
Risk Factor: Extremely high. Avoid at all costs, taking care to avoid eye contact, as often that is all The Stereotype needs to initiate an interaction which may or may not end in violence.

There are a few more categories (mother with child, homeless person with a pet, etc.), but you get the idea. Anyway…

I was standing in line at Dunkin’ Donuts a little while ago when a homeless man came into the…store? Restaurant? What’s the proper term for an individual Dunkin’ Donuts? I don’t know. Anyway, he came into the place and started making his rounds, quietly and politely asking people for money; just as quietly and politely, every single person he asked demurred. I was one of those people.

I immediately felt badly for saying no, especially since I had money in my wallet to give him. Plus, I was kind of a dick about it- I didn’t yell at him or anything, but I was sort of dismissive. But then I started thinking: Why do I feel badly for not giving my money to someone just because they ask politely? Where in the social contract does it state that, because I have some cash in my wallet, I should either give it to someone or feel like an asshole for not doing so? That’s some heavy bullshit.

Another thing I started to wonder was, how does that guy (or any homeless person) feel about having to beg for money? Granted, there’s no uniform thought process for all the world’s homeless, so in this case, let’s focus on the fellow at Dunkin’ Donuts. Does he feel ashamed and embarrassed to ask strangers for money? Or has a survival instinct kicked in and feeling shame is no longer an option for him? It’s the same thing I wonder when I see a homeless person walk by pay phones and parking meters and check them all for change. Obviously, the only people who would do that are the homeless (and possibly little children); is it worth the 25 cents you might find to essentially out yourself as a homeless person? Or, again, do they just reach a point where they don’t give a shit what anybody else thinks?

One night, I was getting off the train and some big black guy asked me for money. (It doesn’t matter that he was black, but…it does.) He started telling me about how he was just released from prison and needed a place to stay, but then, he didn’t ask me for any money. So I had to have this exchange:

Me: So…what do you need?
Him: [meaningful look]
Me: …Are you asking me for a place to stay?
Him (realizing that was a weird request and that this exchange is going downhill quickly): Nah, nah…do you have any money?

So I gave him a couple of bucks. If he really was just released from prison, maybe that couple of dollars would help him get back on his feet, thus reducing the odds of a repeat offense on his part. I’m just now realizing how insanely stupid that logic is. The worst part, though, was the fact that after I gave him the money, he didn’t even thank me. Look, I know $2 isn’t a princely sum, but still, man: I gave you money for doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. You didn’t tell me a joke, you weren’t playing an instrument, and you didn’t even have a particularly good story as to why you needed the money. I thought briefly about asking him for the money back because he was such an ingrate about it, but…you know, big black guy.

The one thing I usually don’t do, though, is ignore someone who’s asking for money (unless it’s a Stereotype. I’m polite, not a fucking idiot.) I think people who do that are the biggest pieces of shit on the planet. “NO I won’t look up from my phone, you fetid pile of street trash! YOU CEASED TO EXIST IN MY EYES THE DAY YOU GOT EVICTED.” Even if I don’t give them money, the fact that they’re reduced to asking should at least warrant a human interaction with them. It literally costs you nothing, and they deserve that much. (Important note: I’m not talking about the people who get accosted late at night on an abandoned street. Obviously, safety comes first. I’m talking about the people who are in absolutely zero danger and just don’t want to acknowledge someone below their social station. That could be you someday, you know. Try a little fucking empathy.)

Do I think I’m a better person for occasionally giving money to the homeless? Absolutely not. I’m giving them, like, a dollar or two, not a spot on my lease. Also, I don’t do anything else to help the homeless- I don’t volunteer at a shelter, I don’t participate in any outreach programs, I don’t buy them medicine. It’s really as much for the benefit of my own ego as it is for the benefit of the homeless. I’m just paying a dollar or two for the temporary self-satisfaction I get from doing it, and then I go right back to ignoring them. Which probably makes me more of a piece of shit than I’m willing to consider.

At any rate, I’m sure being homeless sucks, and I do wish it weren’t such an epidemic in this country. But for now, I’ll just shove a dollar or two once in a while at the problem and hope it goes away on its own.