The Gift of Giving..

The Christmas shopping frenzy is now behind us, retailers are quietly sitting in back rooms calculating the returns versus sales numbers so they can estimate their gross sales, and whether or not they can survive another month.

There are a new sprinkling of shop windows papered over as sales expectations failed to materialize, and January rent was a distant dream.

We have spent the last few months being absolutely bombarded with requests for money from every every possible charity imaginable, some of which didn’t exist a week ago. Emails, mail, phone calls, donation boxes, it is tiresome beyond belief, and for many, overwhelming. Walk on the street and you are absolutely accosted by those claiming to be homeless, some with dogs, some with signs, all with tales of woe, others playing offensive music; which is a true assault on the ears, some on crutches, wheelchairs, the choices are endless.

As someone who is, and has always been a walker, I have been passing by many of these so called ‘down on their luck’ people for years and years, and witnessed the incredible generosity of many naïve individuals giving and giving until it hurts. The problem is, many of the pan-handlers are actually earning 10 times more money than those giving it, they are not paying tax, and are increasingly taking over our sidewalks, and giving a black eye to our city.

What is unknown to many, is that there is a pecking order of panhandlers, and they are actually paying a commission for their spot. I found out be accident one day when speaking with the owner of a downtown restaurant. I complained to him about the fact I was practically tripped by the pan-handler on his front step, and found it offensive that I had to deal with that every time I entered his restaurant. He told me that when they insisted the pan-handlers remove themselves, many times their front window was broken when they arrived the next day. They are actually threatened with damage to their premises. As their restaurant is in a ‘key spot’ someone actually comes several times a day to collect a commission for the spot. If the pan-handler is not the ‘authorized’ one, he will be threatened and moved.

There have been many stories over the last few years about pan-handlers, many in Toronto, as a few Toronto reporters have followed pan-handlers home on more than one occasion and witnessed the change in comportment when they get in their car or on the bus. One which made the headlines in Montreal and Toronto was about the woman from Hamilton Ontario, pan-handling for years outside the Eaton Center in downtown Toronto, proclaiming that she needed money for food and education for her daughter. A journalist followed her to her  new VW Jetta, whereupon he leapt into a taxi and followed her home. She, at that time, was living in a paid up $750,000 home in Hamilton with her Accountant husband. Her daughter had long since graduated and was going to University. Her expensive lifestyle, home, car and clothes made it blatantly obvious that she was earning way above the money she claimed.

Another well known ‘street musician’ who is aggravating beyond belief on Ste Catherine Street had a bunch of do-gooders ranting about his right to earn his living, regardless of how tiresome he is. What these people have failed to witness is the wife coming in the new SUV to pick up her husband around the corner every night.  They vacation in Florida, and are wearing expensive clothes. At Christmas if one stands in the doorway and watches, one sees a stream of people handing him $5, $10 and $20 bills over a period of ten minutes, so clearly he is earning well above the money he claimed. In fact, he is earning several hundred dollars an hour on a good day. Tax free.

Another extremely rude pan-handler can move locations several times in the same day. He starts on Greene Avenue in Westmount, then in front of Bice on Sherbrooke, sometimes to Holt Renfrew at Mountain and Sherbrooke. If there is a football or Hockey game, he is in front of the stadium, sometimes it is with a fake cast on his leg, other times in a wheelchair, other times with crutches. But watch him board the bus!!!!   Stands straight up, marches brightly on board and sits down. The Crutches, or wheelchair stowed out of the way………. Seriously???

I have crossed him up to 5 times in the same day over the years, on a good day I estimate he earns $1000.

Then there is the rude one in front of Westmount Square on Greene Avenue, complaining about his horrible lot in life. Ever watch this liar over Christmas??    Little old ladies are giving him $50 and $100 bills so he can have a nice Christmas. He actually was in Westmount Square one day complaining about one who gave him $200 then had the audacity to tell him to get a nice meal for Christmas. He was complaining about her thinking she had the right to tell HIM what to do with HIS money………wow. …..and ….by the way, …..he is in Florida right now………watch him come back in a few weeks with his annual tan, and a scarf around his face hiding the tan………it is an annual event…………

Complaints to Westmount Public Security have yielded no results. They are still there, likewise the police on the downtown beat.

Certain well publicized charities do extensive advertising, yet few individuals or companies actually take the time to research what percentage of the money actually goes to the charity in question  versus fees, commissions, overheads, etc. Many would be horrified to learn the actual numbers.  Over the years I have worked on an incredible number of charitable campaigns, some political, some not, and was absolutely mortified to learn in some cases how little actually went to the cause. Several huge charity balls are paying enormous amounts of money to the organizers. More than one well publicized event bringing in millions are paying PR firms to organize the events, yet year after year they are larger and more publicized, and it is considered ‘in’ to be seen there. Companies purchase tables of 8-10 for outrageous amounts of money, to be seen as good corporate citizens, unfortunately, proportionately the amounts actually finding their way to the charity in question can only represent 20% of the take. I found out the hard way when one of the companies I was approaching insisted on seeing the financial statements of the charity. They only participate if over 60% is given to the charity. It was extremely embarrassing on my part to discover I was being lied to and was working gratis for organizations who totally mis-represent themselves.

We have a group of individuals who are now pushing the idea of ‘giving back’ and we hear this being spewed out in the press and at most public affairs. This seems to be the latest trend, bragging rights about ‘giving back’ . We hear the rhetoric about Haiti, Katrina, and other disasters, but what are they really giving other than lip service???

Many of the super-rich in the USA are setting up foundations to distribute some of their amazing wealth, however, what is not being mentioned is the fact that it is 100% deductible against their income taxes, so at the end of the day, they are giving out the same amount of money to charity which would otherwise go to the government in tax. Is this money actually doing anything useful? We continue to have a level of poverty in parts of Canada and the USA which are astounding, teen pregnancies, children are selling themselves and drugs, people are living in tents in parks, and under bridges, AIDS is still rampant, Cancer has not disappeared, and there are more religious wars raging than ever before. Children are starving in Africa, people in New Orleans and Haiti have not been re-located to new homes, part of Africa does not have potable water ……..

So, other than a lot of noise and space in the press, what has actually changed?

I have donated over 790 huge bags of goods to both Value Village and the Salvation Army over the last couple of years. This creates employment, money is given to several charities, and the merchandise does not end up in landfill. But as my contributions are silent, no one is giving me public recognition, and this is really what the commentary is actually about. What has all this ranting actually become?            ……  Getting public recognition for TALKING about how wonderfully generous we are while actually doing nothing??

One good friend of mine is very kind and generous. She is always introducing people to one another who she thinks can help, she entertains endlessly, and is always available to friends in time of crisis. This week she took time off work to bring a friend to a top divorce lawyer she knows to help him as he is not from here, and doesn’t have her network of contacts.  There is always something.

Every year we exchange Christmas gifts, and it is always great fun, as  we both have a knack of finding totally amazing, and appropriate gifts for one another. This year was no different, and the evening I went to her home just before Christmas to do our annual gift exchange, she had other guests for dinner and cocktails.

When I was at her home a few days later, I asked what the others had given her, as that particular night they had arrived totally empty handed. Not wine, no food, no gifts. She told me that I was the ONLY one of her friends who had given her any gifts, which made mine even more special.

EXCUSE ME??    Many of her friends are multi-millionaires and they gave her absolutely NOTHING?

They should be ashamed.

Even a trinket for $20 would have been better than nothing. It would certainly not have changed their lives.  But this is pure selfishness. Some of them went on extravagant vacations to luxury resorts, others were bragging about the expensive clothes……purses, etc they had purchased for themselves. Some of them sat at the table and carried on about how important it is for them to ‘give back’. Yet they gave NOTHING to a friend who entertains them.

There is another well known lady who hosts fabulous parties every Christmas in her elegant Westmount home. Although she stresses not to bring a gift, common courtesy dictates that one does, in fact, not arrive empty handed.

The frenzy of Christmas shopping, which initially was about giving onto others, has become a pre and post holiday shopping extravaganza of monumental proportions, yet, I am seriously questioning how much of this shopping is now given as gifts as opposed to purchases made for themselves. We hear another totally vulgar expression, ‘to treat oneself’ all the while proclaiming their generosity.

But have any of these loud people looked closer to home?     How many have friends who are down on their luck?      Sick?       Closed in?  Have ANY of them actually considered doing something kind for those individuals they actually  know?

One very close friend of mine died a few years ago, she was un-married, childless, and wealthy, as are her family. There are very few  in her family.   Many of us spent endless hours with her during her illness, driving her around, feeding her, bathing her, taking care of her, and ensuring she was not alone.  Yet she very publicly left a lot of money to charity, and the balance to her family, who are wealthy in their own right. Those close to her, including one friend who nearly lost everything, received absolutely nothing. We were not friends with her due to her wealth, most of us had absolutely no idea how rich she was. Yet her oldest friend who lost her home due to the recession, received absolutely nothing.

This is morally reprehensible.

Giving to strangers and charities  very publicly  while your oldest friend loses her home. There is something seriously wrong with this picture. I am not suggesting she should have purchased the home for her friend, however offering some assistance to help her out would have been the right thing to do, as given her level of wealth compared to the amount in question, it would not have made a difference in either her life of that of her family.

So, what is the message here?

Perhaps I will never be as wealthy as many of these people, perhaps I am old fashioned, naïve, overly generous, not selfish enough, not public enough with my good deeds. However, I do believe in KARMA. Think about it next time you give money to a stranger while a friend of yours suffers. Something seriously wrong here.

It is time to do the right thing. Just because you talk about it doesn’t make it so.

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