There’s an intersection a few blocks from my house where the beggars assemble. You’d probably recognize it (even if you haven’t been here) because it’s a common suburban scene:

It’s a busy intersection just off the freeway. Every beggar stakes out their own corner. If there are newcomers and no corners are free, they’ll have to beg down the street a little, or maybe on the median. Definitely not on someone else’s corner. The procedure is simple. When the light turns red and the cars start backing up near a particular beggar’s corner, he or she walks around with a cardboard sign saying how homeless or hungry or pregnant he or she is. When the light turns green, the beggar can go relax leaning against a pole or sitting on the curb.

Sometimes it’s awkward when you see a familiar beggar, especially if you’ve interacted with them before. Being a beggar is a surprisingly public position. Of course the great thing about recognizing familiar beggars is seeing their signs change day by day, especially if they have a sense of humor. Everyone loves a clever cardboard sign.

One beggar stands out to me from the intersection by our house, and it’s not because of his clever signs. It’s because of his cell phone.

He’s always out on the same corner. He does the normal routine, showing his sign during the red lights, but when the light turns green and the cars pull away, he goes and sits on a chair that he has stashed in the bushes. And I’ve seen him sitting there talking on his cell phone multiple times.

Now I know what I’m about to say is very hypocritical considering my last post, but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t buy it. I know that cell phone bills are less money than rent, and I know that someone could have some kind of prepaid phone without having an address or a job or a credit score. It just seems to me that a person with enough sense to own and operate a cell phone would have the sense to cancel his service before things got so tough that he would need to go out begging on the street.

The truth is that I don’t know anything about this particular man or what his story is. I don’t know if he’s capable of working and has found that panhandling pays better, or if he really is in need of help and can’t help himself. I don’t know if he has a cell phone so he can call his wife at home and chat while he’s out collecting change, or if someone gave it to him so that he can try to find a job. I don’t know if he’s talking to buddies or potential employers when I see him talking on it. So I realize that it’s wrong of me to be so skeptical of him, but I’d be dishonest if I only told the stories of the homeless people that I felt sympathy for and didn’t acknowledge the other side of this issue being on my mind so much.

One day after I’d driven past that man on the way home, I realized why the cell phone beggar bothers me so much (and subsequently vented my frustrations to Kelly). It’s not that he has a cell phone or a panhandling routine or a chair in the bushes. It’s not even my suspicions that he’s faking the need that he’s in. It’s what I can imagine it doing to the people that are in real need.

If someone (whether it’s really the case with this man or not) begs and seeks help when they don’t really need it, I think they’re robbing both aid and compassion from the truly needy. When kind people see him, they donate a few bucks that otherwise could have gone to someone in real need. When less-kind people see him, it just reinforces their belief that homelessness is a choice that deserves no sympathy.

I don’t know how to tell who is in real need and who isn’t, and maybe the right answer is that it’s not my place to judge their motives at all. But I do feel that if there are people who could help themselves and choose not to, that they are contributing to the greater problem and taking advantage of those that really do need help. And if that is the case, don’t I kind of have an obligation to make some kind of judgment call as to who really deserves my help?