While involuntary homeless life in America is no picnic.... homelessness in Thailand is truly a sad and sorry affair. In Thailand, there is absolutely no safety net for the mentally ill. Those without family support are subject to horrid degredation, terrible humiliation, and truly wretched lives. I admit, even with my experience with homelessness in America (as both a social worker and a voluntary homeless person) I find it very hard to face the situation in Thailand.
The beggars in Bangkok are often filthy.... their clothes and skin are black from grime, dirt, and pollution. You see them crouched on street corners, or on the pedestrian bridges that cross major roads. You often smell them before you see them. They stink because many have not bathed in months... perhaps years. Many of the worst... the skinniest and dirtiest, are clearly mentally ill. They talk to themselves or stare with wide and wild eyes. Their movements are quick and jerky. Sometimes they rock back and forth while kneeling in front of a bowl for coins. Others prostrate themselves for hours in an act of humility and desperation. Their eyes are often red and glassy.
For all their professed Buddhist beliefs, many Thais are incredibly insensitive to the homeless population... a situation much like the United States. Thais justify their indifference and judgement by insisting that there are no homeless Thais in Bangkok. According to every Thai person I have asked about the subject (many), all of the homeless people are either Burmese, Cambodian, or Laotian. Thais, therefore, express righteous indignation that these foreigners are coming into Thailand to wheedle money out of good, hard-working Thais. The parallels to American attitudes about Latino immigrants are clear and just as ugly.
Another defense that Thais have against their conscience is an ongoing, media reinforced, urban myth. According to this myth... which Thais insist has been validated by newspaper articles.... the majority of homeless beggars are actually skilled hustlers who make lucrative salaries from begging. The story is that these wily folks dress themselves in rags and cover themselves in filth and then trick Thais into giving them loads of money. Yesterday, a Thai friend told me that the average beggar, according to an unnamed Thai newspaper, makes 3000 Baht a day!!!
I have never seen anyone, however, give a beggar more than 20 Baht... and that is extremely rare. Most people give a 5 Baht coin. Apparently, these guys are carrying around bags of coins at the end of every day... According to the urban myth, they all have cell phones and motorcycles. I'm sure they live in palaces too.
Of course this is a cynical and ugly lie. From long experience in shelters and Emergency Rooms, I know the smell of long-term filth. You can't fake that by smudging some dirt on your body every morning. I also recognize the genuine signs of mental illness. These people are living wretched lives. Most look malnourished. Their eyes scream desperation.
Amazingly, many Thais also claim that the beggars are alcoholics and addicts and therefore should not be given money. These are often the same people who told me that the beggars are wily rich foreigners. So according to the myth... the beggars are wily, drug addicted foreigners who are making tons of money. Hmmmmm.
Why all these lies and denial? I suppose its a deep seated defense mechanism by otherwise decent people to avoid an overwhelming human problem. How do you look into the eyes of one of these people without being moved to compassion? But if you do that... what next? Giving them a few coins or bills doesn't seem to help much... cause there they are the next day... just as wrethed as they were before. And if you give, say, 100 Baht to one beggar (or $1)... what about the next, and the next, and the next.
This question haunted me when I travelled in India.... facing the inexhaustible population of beggars. At one point I decided to always carry a full pocket of coins and to give to every beggar I came across. Thirty minutes after visiting the bank, I was mobbed and pick-pocketed by a gang of homeless children... who took all of the coins and other money in my pockets. So much for good intentions.
The truth is... this is not an individual problem and it cannot be solved (in any country) at an individual level. I hate to sound all lefty-liberal.... but this is what happens when people have no safety net: no healthcare, no housing options for the unemployed or unemployable, no effective drug rehab for the poor, no livable wage, no education or training, no food for the hungry. Homelessness-- and I'm talking about the involuntary, degrading, impoverished kind-- is a deep and systemic problem that must ultimately be addressed at the systemic level.
So my answer, such as it is, is this: By all means give some coins or bills when you can. By all means give a jacket, or some food. Better still, volunteer with the Mad Housers, or Food Not Bombs... or give them a donation. But more importantly, support efforts for systemic change..... do what you can (even if its just writing a check) to promote free medical care, free food, free education, free drug rehab, free (and effective) mental health treatment, and free housing for those who cannot afford it. And just as importantly, rid yourself of all the lies and urban myths that perpetuate cruelty towards the homeless. These are human beings and they are suffering.
If you really want to do something radical, sit down and talk to one of these people for thirty minutes. Ask them about their lives... how they live now, how they became homeless, how they lived before they were homeless. You can do this whereever you live... be it India, Europe, or America. For thirty minutes, let go of the media programming and try to see and hear the real human being in front of you.
If nothing else, even if you never give a cent to another beggar for the rest of your life,.... you can at least respect their dignity as human beings. You can at least see them. And listen to them.
Just thirty minutes.