To help you become a more responsible traveler in 2018 I’ve launched a monthly series of Responsible Travel Challenges. Each month will focus on an ethical change you can make to your travel style that will benefit the communities you visit and ultimately our precious planet. Each detailed guide will contain specific tips on how to be a more responsible traveler. Adhere to these suggestions to make an impact as you travel.
OCTOBER RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL CHALLENGE: HOW TO INTERACT ETHICALLY WITH PEOPLE LIVING ON THE STREETS
This weekend none other than Lindsay Lohan made headlines for the atrocious way she handled come across a family living on the streets. She presumed where they were from, what their needs were, and grotesquely ended up accusing them of trafficking their own children. Don’t do this.
It’s inevitable when you travel that you may be approached by someone begging or living on the streets. This isn’t something that just happens in the Global South, human society has neglected our brothers and sisters in need so enormously that over 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty.
Handing out your spare change may feel like you’re making a small contribution but in reality, you have no idea where or how that money will be spent. You could be further encouraging damaging behaviors or lining the pockets of pimps. Sometimes, giving money to vulnerable people further encourages them to continue begging as you’ve just made this action profitable.
Being generous with your cash can go a long way, as long as it’s channeled into the proper places such as NGOs that are dedicated to aiding marginalized people and provide services such as counseling, housing, meals, education, rehab, and more.
It’s incredibly difficult to hold back from giving a child or young mother cash when they approach you for such a small amount. Please note that it’s insensitive to refer to those living without their own structure as street people, it’s as if you’re equating them to street dogs. UNICEF defines this community as those who are living and working in the streets.
I investigated the status of children living in the streets for Matador Network and spoke with many NGOs about the dangers these at-risk youth face and how travelers can lend a helping hand. I learned that earnings must be spent by the end of the day or else they may be robbed overnight. With such a short time-frame money is often spent on Bollywood movies, or more seriously on drugs, prostitutes, drinking, and gambling.
Keep this in mind and don’t give anything that could be sold for cash to support dangerous habits including packaged food and clothing items. When I was living in India I offered to buy a meal for anyone who asked me for money. Generally, they’d want to eat alone but a few times I’ve stayed and shared a meal and tried my best to communicate. A few times, once I’ve been able to form a bond, people have allowed me to show them where a local shelter was.
Sometimes I’d carry out fiber-nutritious biskets or bananas–but I’d always open them before handing them over. More often than not my gesture would be met with dismay and they’d scold me for opening the food. In India, absolutely anyone can eat at a Sikh Gurudwara so many people on the streets aren’t actually starving. This, of course, is not the case in many other countries.
Beyond nutrition, most people living on the streets are in need of protection and healthcare. These aren’t things you can provide as a tourist. However, if you’re concerned about their well being you can carry some business cards of local shelters or know the number of helplines in order to try to help people get the care they seek.
You’re not a social worker, you cannot access their needs. But you can listen and do what you can to help support them should they be ready to seek professional assistance. It should be obvious but don’t hand over your cell phone, instead make the call yourself and ask the spokesperson on the line how to best handle the situation.
The most important aspect of all of this is to remember that we are all human. We’re all the same. No person is a photo opp, especially not someone in need who may do whatever they can to appease you in hopes of earning a few bucks off of you. Never exploit people living on the streets. Don’t gawk. Don’t take photos.
These people are often mistreated and disrespected. Show them some decency, you could probably learn a lot from each other but don’t go into this situation expecting anything in return. Providing any sort of aid to someone in need shouldn’t be about your ego at all, but just about how you can help this person get somewhere safer.