One wintry Sunday during a three-month stay in Rome, I walked along the four-lane street that runs in front of the Coliseum. I’d been warned about gypsies working the area so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a gypsy teenager limping toward me on crutches, his hand outstretched in begging. If it had been summer, traffic would have obscured a second man across the street limping toward two tourists on an identical pair of crutches. In the empty January tableau, they should have adopted different gaits. I felt justified when I passed up the man’s open palm.
In my California neighborhood, I’ve made peace with begging and homelessness. I’ve built a moral grading system that allows me to walk past people begging or living on the street. I know who’s crazy, I know who’s shooting up, and I know who is the loser who’s blown through an inheritance. I give to the crazy people but I don’t give to the addicts. I give to food kitchens, and I give a lot.
When I settled into my life in Rome, I discovered I lacked a filter for the heartbreaking array of need on the street. The old women who knelt and prayed without stopping and the old men who displayed open sores and deformed feet were clearly needy, I think. But the gold-toothed gypsy girls with infants wrapped to their breasts? I didn’t know if they were scamming me or not. And I never saw anyone except tourists drop coins into the hands and hats on the street even though my Italian friends assured me that they gave to the needy.
I remembered an Italian professor in California say that homelessness was not a problem in Italy. He admonished Americans for abandoning our people on the streets. The family in Italy, he explained, they took care of their own. That was five years ago and I’ve seen things change.
The day after my trip to the Coliseum, I joined elegant shoppers on Via del Corso to take advantage of winter sales on designer purses and shoes. A young woman wearing a brightly striped gypsy skirt begged from a wheelchair in a doorway, her legs folded at a distorted angle that reminded me of the gypsy boys. Another scam, I thought.
Hours later I took a seat on the bus to go home to my adopted neighborhood. I looked up to see the young woman in the wheelchair, standing on her one good leg, struggle to lift her chair onto the bus and pull her deformed leg up after her. People looked away but I rushed to help. She completed her task before I could reach her.
The coins I dropped into the next outstretched hand couldn’t assuage my guilt about the young woman. From that day on, I gave to the people on the street. I didn’t know if they need it or not, and I didn’t care.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.