The practice of begging, sometimes called peddling, street-hedging or panhandling, has existed for hundreds of years and is almost commonplace in most large cities around the world. Unclean and impoverished individuals mechanically addressing passersby with forlorn requests for spare change are in evidence upon every continent and within nearly every major metropolitan area from San Francisco to Paris to Bangkok.

Beggars appear when business districts flourish and congregate wherever pedestrian traffic is heaviest. For travelers, the need to deal with beggars and begging will arise eventually. Whether sooner or later depends only upon the destination.

While we often avert our gaze and hurry past these odoriferous characters, ignoring their unenthusiastic solicitations, we can be, on occasion, trapped by pity or guilt into handing over a few coins or bills we usually would rather not. The particularly disturbing sight of hungry children, young mothers with newborns, puppies or the beggar’s own physical impairments can move many to sadness, compelling us to reach into our pockets and donate a little towards what we hope will be an improvement. But more often than not, this is a trick.

Perhaps a beggar will force a tune upon a trapped subway crowd, or another will shamelessly display missing limbs or disfigurements. Some will feel obligated to add currency to a cup or hat passed swiftly around. These are merely tactics in the beggar’s repertoire; thieves’ techniques adapted to the modern day, and need to be recognized as such. In some cases, when these passive attempts do not succeed, beggars in some cities become aggressive, profane, intimidating and in rare instances, physical.

In many cities, begging is a form of organized crime. Children and the elderly are governed by mafia-like guilds and gangs, and are taught to prey upon the kindness and compassion of foreigners. Sometimes they are intentionally crippled. In Spain, women are occasionally forced into beggary, and in parts of India, even healthy individuals ‘dress-up’ as beggars and panhandle for the money that can be effortlessly gleaned.

When confronted with begging during your travels, whether silent, annoying or abusive, several tourism authorities, psychologists, experienced travelers and government officials recommend keeping in mind the following things:

  • Begging has two goals: to elicit sympathy and to relieve you of some of your money.
  • Begging can be a prelude to a more serious crime, like pick pocketing, theft and assault.
  • Begging is not always undertaken by those incapable of working, but often by those unwilling to.
  • Giving money to beggars only causes the habit to endure.
  • If you are determined to give something, here are a few alternatives to money: food, clothes, food vouchers or brochures or information about the services of local shelters and aid centers

Be aware that giving money to child beggars is particularly damaging. Through the good intentions of compassionate travelers, local child beggars learn that money can be earned through dishonesty and in the absence of education. In some countries, children have little incentive to continue in school as the kindness of strangers brings instant gratification and perpetuates a destructive cycle.