Answer: Give him £20.
You look baffled — like you missed the punchline to a joke. There was no joke and you didn’t miss anything. Although I have a perniciously dark sense of humour, this is not an example of it.
Outside a supermarket, in South London, there was a man begging. I had a £5 note amongst a couple of twenties and I fished it out and gave it to him. He looked grateful for this small windfall and tucked it away in one of the many folds in his layers of clothes.
COVID-19 has pushed people out of their jobs and out of their homes. The lockdown has reduced pedestrian traffic on the streets, closed public toilets, and made life even harder for the homeless than it was before.
He and I did not catch up on the state of business, but I imagine there were not many people giving him £5 notes. By the time I’d finished my shopping, he had already bundled his belongings together and headed off — I surmised, for food — and in his place was a new face.
I saw the new guy and my immediate thought was, “Yeah, Nah”. I did what anyone would do in these circumstances. I ignored him. I made no eye contact. I pretended I had not heard his polite request for help, and I headed down the street.
Before you judge me, let me remind you, I had already given away my £5 note and all I had left were the twenties. There were also other prospective givers, who felt no compulsion. If they weren’t giving, maybe they knew something about him that I didn’t — some mark or taint that made him less deserving of charity. I felt OK about the decision. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “because there are many in necessity, and they cannot all be helped from the same source, it is left to the initiative of individuals to make provision from their own wealth, for the assistance of those who are in need.” And I had already done my provisioning for the day.
Two hundred meters down the road, I thought to myself, “you arsehole”. And I walked back. I retrieved a £20 note from my wallet and I folded it so it could be passed to him more discreetly. As I got closer I was struck by how lifeless he looked. Huddled, still, and head bowed. He was not looking about anymore. He was not begging. He was spent.
I put my hand out with the money and he reached for it mechanically. Head up to say, thank you. Looked at his hand. Looked again. Started to say, thank you, and burst into tears. There is something profoundly wrong with a grown man being that grateful for £20 — a breach of protocol — so I joined him.