Monday, January 12, 2009

Begging on the Champs Elysées

I took this shot last time I had dinner on the Champs Elysées and I did not publish it right away because I always have mixed feelings about that kind of photos. I think it's easy to trigger pity by showing someone begging for money kneeling down on what they call the most beautiful avenue in the world. At the same time, I must admit that I felt guilty coming out of a heated restaurant, heading to a heated apartment and having no problems paying the bills. Why this guilt? After all, I'm not the one who put this guy in the street. Can someone explain?


  1. I think we all have to feel guilty, and that's quite normal. To feel indifference wouldn't be normal...

    That's definitely a strong and sad picture. I guess we all do what we can by helping and donations.

  2. There is a part of each of us that is good. When we see something like this, somewhere within us there is the simple thought that it could be me. To not have your thoughts would make you less than human.

  3. * to be indifferent
    * and donating
    To be GF with these mistakes is a shame. I'll put a DICTIONARY on my crown!

    nite nite!

  4. I guess people have this feeling because this guilt embraces that of the whole humanity. We feel pity because this situation is unbearable and we wish we can do something to improve it. But instead, well... I recommend you to read this post so cleverally written.
    Bonne nuit :)


  5. Well done GF Little Guille!

    Eric I don't think it's actually guilt that we feel; it's social conscience. It's being aware, feeling sad/sorry for the person involved and knowing that it just can't be right for this person or anyone to be in that position. Guilt is not rational as it is not any of your doing, as you say, which puts him there and it's good to be aware, in my opinion, also to do something if we can possibly to help in some small way. How cold he must have been. I never fail to wonder what his/her story is, how they came to be on that pavement tonight. :(

  6. Many years ago, in India, I was taught by locals to ignore the beggars, because they're all "syndicated."
    Unfortunately, I think this may be largely true. Last fall, in Venice, I watched from my window as the gypsy ladies went off together to "work," then would see them in different parts of town later in the day, all in more or less the same posture as the person in your photo. I'm not totally cynical, or indifferent. If this really is a poor soul who's been reduced to begging by whatever circumstances, then if you've given what you can to a charity that helps people like this, then maybe you don't have to feel totally guilty—just sad.

  7. It's funny how we all have different opinions. Mine is pretty much opposite to yours Alexa though we agree on most things! I rarely give to charities a) because actually I'm not really in a position to at the moment! but quite apart from that b) I think that such a small percentage of the money actually goes to the person you want to help. It goes on wages, administration etc. I don't want to pay those. When I can, I give to the people themselves, so, regardless of the chance they may not be genuine, I will take that chance and give on the street to such people. I will take a gift to a children's home, or I will put in time to serve meals to the homeless, things like that, things I can actually see helping. I shall soon be reading the news for tapes for the blind, you know that type of thing. Wages for charity workers? Though their hearts are certainly in the right place; no.

  8. I just read an article in the NY
    Times about the homeless in Paris.

    Keep your sensitive heart Eric.

  9. That was really interesting Nancy, thanks.
    One of the best books I ever read is Down and Out in Paris And In London - George Orwell. Amazing.

  10. I think what you experience, Eric, is called "empathy" or maybe even "compassion." Some people can experience it, others can't. We like you, Eric, because you can.

    I'll admit that on cold days in San Francisco (yes, we have them ;) my spare change tends to leave my pocket much quicker. You'd think you'd get callous after seeing people in the street year after year after year, and then, as it turns out, you don't, perhaps because the great majority of us is only one or two experiences away from joining them.

  11. That is not to say that there are not "professional beggars" out there... especially in the Metro in Paris, but when you see mentally retarted people, old people, people completely out of it, wondering the streets... I don't know, just can't get used to it.

  12. Alexa, "syndicated" exactly! Recently when I was rushed to the emergency room, there was a young man bleeding to death opposite me because he tried to retrieve stolen gifts from a "homeless" person who had stolen them from a woman. In turn, he was stabbed. Stabbed to death over a "GameBoy". I have a few more first-hand stories if you have the stomach to hear them. BTW he was only 27 years old. He thought he was doing a good thing.

    Tomate, Much wisdom. How old are you great sage?

  13. Eric, Do show us more photos of "the most beautiful avenue in the world." I love the Champs Elysées. I feel like a ramp model when I am walking on the "see and to be seen" Champs Elysées.

  14. We are having a bright orange sunset in San Francisco. It has been so hot in my neighborhood. My flowers on my terrace are laughing. Everyone in T-shirts and at the out-door cafes. Big bisous of California sun to my lovely Paris.

  15. I don't have much to add. Southern California is full of homeless people as you can guess. I've come to recognize some I see in Pasadena regularly, but the two that come to mind never ask for anything.

    Compassion. I don't know how they got that way, but they are still human beings.

  16. wow. just wow. How one of the commentors here can see the Champs Elysees in that picture, totally missing the point baffles me.

    I recently spent two weeks in Paris, it was quite cold and as usual beggars were everywhere. The thing about Paris beggars is so many of them are very old and/disabled. I TRY to ignore them as is the standard protocol, but it is hard, I did feel guilty as a tourist paying ten bucks for a cup of coffee and god know how much for my nice hotel. I only gave to two beggars this time, both very old men, and the only regret of my trip is not giving more.

    I just can't take seeing someone's grandmother sitting on the ground in the cold begging for change.

    I just can't. Where are their children? Grandchildren? Are they like me and never had kids? All of these people flocking to a church and ninety year old blind woman is outside with a cup and you put nothing in it? How can that be?


  17. Perea, Spoken like a queen of the silver screen. Be care of the so called "homeless" people. Please keep your distance my love.

  18. Oh Lois, I'm careful, and I appreciate your concern. Don't worry. I'm more an actor than a "screen queen," so to me it's more interesting to understand people. I wonder if a smile or a bit of friendly conversation wouldn't be just as valuable to these people as change. They're so often ignored or worse.

  19. We're all participating in a system which allows people to live out on the streets. And there is probably more we could do about it too, even with the little amount of time we have when we're not busying making the money that assures we're not that person. I think guilt is pretty natural, considering all this.

  20. Nobody can explain to my satisfaction. "Syndication" certainly does not do the trick. I know of no Fagin. It is not a profession here, as it is in India, though obviously it is a means of survival.

    And, yes, I too feel the guilt--for not carrying in my car the pocket change that I dump in a tray on my kitchen counter. At every highway exit here there is somebody with a sign begging for money. Homeless, please help. Disabled veteran. Any amounty helps. God bless. These 'slogans' barely legible on a flimsy piece of cardboard from a box.

    I didn't put these people there. But every time I see them, every day, I wish I had remembered to put the change in a bag for the car. In fact, I will do this right now.

    You have just made an impact, Eric.

  21. Guille: your English was not at all incorrect. You simply said it in a different way that still is grammatically correct.

  22. Yes, I feel guilty too and yet like you I did not directly cause this person's homelessness. Some beggars are scam artists, some aren't. Sometimes donating helps, sometimes it perpetuates larger problems.

    Sometimes I take them for a sandwich or buy them food. When it's possible and safe take them somewhere for food. One can't always to this, but if they're willing having that genuine social contact feels another need.

    Once I told a homeless woman that I'd give her the pizza I'd just finished. She asked what kind it was and then said she didn't like that kind. Okay. I wound up putting the "doggy bag" on a park bench in an area where there were several homeless folks.

  23. While I was in Paris near the Gare de Nord I saw a van delivering food to various street people. They seemed to be regulars with the same folks sleeping in the same locations. Are there agencies of some sort that care for the homeless? Hoping that the church cares for people nearby, I put my loose change into the collection basket when I attended services.

  24. Hello Eric,
    I am not sure if it is a feeling of "guilt" exactly. But sure it is more than "dissapointment".
    Unfortunately this is (and was) a part of our lives since I remember... It is just even more strange if you can see this at Champs Elysees.
    Even more sad is another fact. We all try to help these people somehow, everyone as much as he can do, individually. If me or you accidentally would be in the same situation without money, house, family, without any chance to come up from that hell, most probably we would also stay alone at that place...
    At this point animals are much more human than we, human beings. We speak about "being human" but most of the population is disgusted by "being human in real life"... Therefore all those and other tragedies happen...

  25. Yes, it could be a scam artist or not...we each take our chances I guess. It is a human being, and as Tomate so eloquently says, we may be "only one or two experiences away from joining them." I think many of us have been jaded from giving from scammers or from tragic stories such as the one Lois mentioned, but there are so many ways to help the less fortunate (with our time) volunteering at the local soup kitchen or Lynn's great suggestions. Eric, I'm sure any guilt you have comes from your "good" heart. Photos like these put things into perspective quickly.

  26. I think what you're feeling is compassion for your fellow human being(s). At any time, on any day, that person could be us.

  27. Petrea sums it all up for me "They are still human beings". At the end of the day, no matter the war, civil or personal, we all have the right to live a basic existence at minimum.

    I like the photo Eric and often feel that these candid, real life shots, bring Paris back to the reality that she is.

  28. Eric, it probably wasn't guilt, but just human compassion - a good trait to have.

    Regarding the 'syndicated' beggars- here in a suburb of Chicago, driving home from work I was stopped at a traffic light and saw a disheveled man holding a cardboard sign asking for money. As I waited for the light to change, another disheveled man came and the first man gave his sign to the second man and then left. It was a change of shift.

    There had been a story on the news about these people who are hired to beg and they are paid a small percentage of the money they receive, giving the rest to the organizer.

    It's a sad state of affairs.

  29. I've been "working" in a charity for 5 years, and as far as I can tell, "empathy", "compassion", as Tomate said, are the feelings that we, volunteers, mostly experience.
    Along with anger, frustration and even fear. Not that we are afraid of those we receice but afraid to see from their stories how rapidly their situation has come to the point they have to put their pride deep in their pocket and knock at our door.
    We are not dupe (?), we know that some of them are cheating, lying, like the syndicated beggars Alexa was talking about, but we accept that.
    We apply "la présomption d'innocence".
    We better provide help to someone who doesn't really deserve it than take the risk to miss somebody who absolutely needs it.
    Lynn, I can just speak for my association, but I can tell you that more than 85 % of the donations we receive are spent to provide food or help ( social insertion and lodging).

  30. I often ask myself whether 'beggars' (especially on the Champs Elysées) are sincere or not, which, I admitt it, may appear ridiculous... But that's true I wouldn't like to be mistaken.
    To tell the truth, I am a bit lost in analysis, with this matter.
    May Marylène's beautiful words come back to me at anytime.

  31. I am a new one here (sorry for my English)...

    I really feel guilt when I see a person who is not begging but is starving which is very common for Eastern Europe but not here in Paris. You are coming out from the car and see a man or a woman who have been working really hard through all his or her life (as a doctor/scientist/teacher etc.) but lives now with a pension that is hardly 3 times more than your normal bill for gasoline. But this person has got the pride of not asking for money. That is when I feel really guilty. I always think I could do something to them...

    I treat all the beggars in Paris as professionals. If you take RER frequently you see people giving yellow papers with usual stories. These people are different but the papers were not changed since already couple of years. That means that Paris professional beggars do bad job and I have no pity for them.

  32. Marylene that's a very good thing to know and I'm sure you are doing very good work. I couldn't agree more about not taking the risk of missing someone who needs help. I still choose, however, to see 100% of my time/money going straight to the cause.

  33. I have been in France for 6 months. When I lived in the 13th, nearly every day outside the shopping cetre were employees of charities begging for support. In the UK, charities raise money by running charity shops, reselling items which have been donated. This helps the charity to help their clients and also helps people who need cheap items such as clothing. I know of three charity shops in Paris--all Emmaus. WHY don't more French charities do this--is charity in France in such short supply that people wouldn't give to these shops? It seems such a common sense solution to me--helps giver, buyer and charity. Crazy that France doesn't do this.

  34. Entropycottage yes these shops are great! You can often pick up bargains in them, household items, CDs, books etc. I often buy books there. I take unwanted items from my home to these shops. Again, I really don't know the percentage of revenue which gets through, but it's better than throwing my goods on the tip, so I have always contributed.

  35. I think guilt and shame are normal feelings because somehow we relate on some level that we could be that person and we wonder why we are not. I think it's good to be sensitive about these kinds of photos, yet I also like them because they show us the real side of life for some people. This could be a photo from any city in the world....

  36. Marylène makes a good point about it being more important to make sure the needy people are cared for than to worry about a few who might be lying. But I understand in these times many of us are concerned because we can only spare so much.

    I can't think of the url, but there's at least one website that has examined worldwide charities and will tell you what percentage of your donation goes to administration and what amount actually gets to the people who need it.

    I like to think there are more good charities than bad ones.

  37. In some sense, I agree with every post today. I think everyone is willing to help those who really need it. I am one of those too. I can only contribute what some friends of mine in the States have told me from their experiences of working with the homeless and getting them back on their feet. They tell me that without exception, that once off the street, these folks will tell you that the worst thing you can do is give them money. The money is not spent on food and/or shelter. In the States, there are shelters and soup kitchens and other resources that the homeless can turn to without begging for money. I have to believe the same is true in France. One of my friends buys food coupons from McDonalds, etc. and will give those out but she will never give them cash. In the end, everyone must decide for themselves what is best for the giver and the receiver. It is not easy.

  38. Lynn, you're so right on the guilt part.

    When I go to a place where I know there will be beggars, I always have coins in my coat or the front pocket on my purse. I think it's better to give a little than nothing at all. One euro might make the difference between being able to buy a cup og hot coffee or having to live without it.
    It must be SO hard, lonely, boring and degrading to be homeless. I think it's important that the rest of us remembers to make an eye contact and give a smile (even if we don't give money)just to recognize them as visible fellow human beings.

    I know what Alexa means though. In Rome I experienced the gypsy women at work, and after a few days I stopped giving them money. It was so obvious that they were "at work".
    I once had a man coming to my door and he always asked for food or money, and for a long time I had him on my payrole. Then one day I gave him some food instead, and he got so angry with me that he threw the sandwich on the earth. Do I need to mention that he never came back after that ?

    But I still have coins in my pocket to give.

    Don't you just love the beggar in "Amélie" who is not "working" on sundays ?

  39. Reading comments, I can't help but wonder whether a beggar could say : "no, no, you know there's nothing personnel, that's just business!"...
    Very sad anyway...

  40. This may be the website Petrea is thinking of.
    Lynn, I always check out any charity I give to very carefully, to be sure that as much of my donation as possible goes where it will do the most good. Unfortunately, here in NYC, if I gave to every beggar I encounter, I'd soon be joining their ranks. Also, unfortunately many of the homeless people you encounter here are mentally ill as well . . .
    It's so hard to know what to do, when you want to solve a problem you know you can't solve.
    Bettina is so right though—they certainly deserve dignity along with our charity.
    Your heart is in the right place, Eric.

  41. It's all so sad but it's clear that we all on here like to help in whichever way we prefer. That's got to be good.
    Petrea I didn't mean to imply that some charities are bad. I've no idea if they are. I simply mean that, by definition of a large organisation, there are understandably wages to pay to these well meaning and hard working people. I don't want to do that. I want to give to the person needing it on the street or give my time if I can't do that. i.e. Cut out the middle man.

  42. Eric, you have a beautiful heart. I appreciate when you show us all sides of Paris.

    This photo does draw more empathy from me than the one you posted of the beggar with the champagne bottle (and glass!).

    I think if this fellow was a professional he'd have a much bigger receptacle.

  43. One reason may be because, you not gave he a small dinner warm.

  44. There is a man who, at about 7pm every night, stands in front of Rue Recamier.He looks gentle and clean. I have seen him for years and finally decided to help him out. After giving him some money, he offered to recite me a poem. How European of him I thought. Better than the homeless man in NYC, who looked at me after I gave him some cash and said"I need a woman!".

  45. Were you wearing those 2008 sunglasses PHX? That could explain a lot!

  46. Michael - LOL! : )

    Thanks for the thought provoking photo, Eric. Its great that you put these things on the blog. My hope is that no one will feel guilty about another's situation. I think its easy to confuse guilt with compassion or to choose to give out of guilt. Guilt doesn't help me or the other person. Compassion, or just the desire to give, allows me to choose an act, with respect, and to find out if my act will be helpful or desired by the other person - as an equal.

    There will always be people who have more than I and people who have less. I don't feel like the millions who have more than I do should feel guilty about it - and I wouldn't like it as well if they gave me something out of guilt.

    In the same way, if I give something it shouldn't matter if the person I give it to has more or less than I. What we have is not who we are.

  47. To give someone in need help is human nature. I do not wonder if the person is a scam artist or not. I only hope that if I am ever in need, a kind strange may help me. And if he/she is a scam artist a few dollars here or there does not matter to me. For I would rather give them the benefit of the doubt, then not help at all. ~ Z

  48. Begging is an unfamiliar concept in Australia because it has something to do with pride or lack thereof simply because we have a good social security system and charities in place that do an excellent job of looking after anyone who seeks them out.

    In some countries without a social security system, begging is not only the "norm" but a necessity. I've seen documentaries about Afghani women without husbands begging on a daily basis and sitting in the heat and the cold, just to feed their children. On a busy Paris street, in a country with a strong socialist history and no doubt a good social security system, begging becomes a bit of a mystery. I'd be interested in knowing what this fellow's story is too.

    It can be very unsettling Eric to see this but even some small change can make a difference if the fellow is genuine.

    I remember a time when I lived in Paris and had to wait until the end of the month to get paid. I had no money because I had given half of my savings to my stepbrother in London who was going off to Kurdistan with the Save the Children Fund as a medical doctor. I could have gone to my godmother's place for dinner every night or I could have begged on the street but because of my pride and the fact that I was only 19, that wasn't really an option. Instead, with the little money I had, I bought rice, milk, sugar and made a rice pudding that I ate every week. I kept enough money for one baguette of bread and cafe au lait and my trainfare to work each day. Once a week I went to my godmother's for dinner and once a week I went to another friend's for dinner and occasionally I would let my boyfriend (who had no idea of my circumstances - pride again) buy me a banana split.
    I had asked my parents for money - they said no.
    The moral to this story is that one can survive for a limited length of time, knowing that it will end, that eventually there will be money coming in for rent, heating, etc. But for some, there is no end in sight and desperation leads them to begging, I suppose.

    Your photo is poignant for many reasons but not least because behind this man in black is a woman in a beautiful and fashionable coat. The blurred line of trees and street lights are lovely too.

    Ah, it's a complex world we live in, no?

  49. Mme. Benaut's post was so eloquent I hesitate to add another...but there is a very good site called JustGive which some of you might want to check out. Easy to say, "I don't want to support those middle people..." but consider that these middle people feel called to make it possible for others to help and for the help to be well used. Is that not worth supporting? Also, in the case of the church, many of the staffers are also religious and their living comes to them from the church and not from your direct donations. St. Paul said,
    "the worker is worthy of his hire," and is that not true of a charity worker as of any other worker?
    Just another view here...
    Lovely comments, may we all act on them in our various ways.

  50. Mme Benaut, you remind me of times when it was also tough for me. I asked one source and was turned down. I had pride and didn't ask again. I found ways. I made do. Sometimes these things happen because of our own choices, sometimes not. Some of us may be more resourceful than others.

    Newwine said "these middle people feel called to make it possible for others to help and for the help to be well used."

    Everyone's so eloquent. Another great discussion, Eric.

  51. I know I'm a day late, but I just received this and found it interesting, even if long:

    A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousand of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

    Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

    A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the mo ney in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

    A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

    The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

    In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

    No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most i ntricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

    Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theatre in Boston and the seats average $100.

    This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people.

    The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

  52. A lot, not all, but a lot of these people are begging by choice and they count on us feeling guilty. Most of them make more in a day then we make in a week.

  53. Here where I live, most street beggars and homeless people are said to be mentally ill, lacking the ability to either care for themselves or access the few available resources. It is accepted knowledge that some were professional people of means before catastrophe struck. Few, I think, would stay in those circumstances if they could help it. I wonder if syndicated beggars are the unfortunate victims of the syndicators....while we like to believe that everyone has it within themselves to take charge and direct their lives, I think the reality is that there are many unfortunate souls who are controlled by others. I try to imagine what I would feel in the place of the true beggar and think that perhaps it takes more courage than we can fathom to stay alive each day and put out that cup hoping for the mercy of others. For the faker or manipulator or cheater, one can only feel pity. I agree with everyone that it is only human to feel something disquieting when confronted with a scene like this. I think there is a common thread of sameness running through all of us and perhaps a finer line of separation and distinction between "us" and "them" than we would expect, so our disquiet may also be our fear.~~Andrea

  54. I'd say those feelings come from a mix of acknowledging our own (potential) unhappiness and the empathy that lives in us.

  55. The beggars mirror our fears. I doubt it is guilt you feel - or in any case ought to feel - I think it is more a matter of compassion for the less fortunate, as well as a sense of sorrow we cannot alleviate it all at once. Thus, the coin dropped in the cup is an expression of love, recognizing the beggar is a human being, just like ourselves.

    You are a good, honourable man to feel such things.