So what is the answer to stopping panhandling? Or should it be stopped? Why am I even asking the question?
Because in the past, few people stood on street corners holding signs outlining their particular dire circumstances and asking for money, and now there are many. And because it’s uncomfortable to drive past the same people over the course of years and watch them lose weight, become weather-beaten, look like they’re suffering, and not know what, if anything, you can do.
In an earlier blog I talked about a female panhandler who — due to illness — weighed 68 pounds and needed money for food. She received medical care and had housing but the state government had taken away her food stamps. She didn’t complain or cry, merely appeared resigned. I gave her a little money and then returned to share information on feeding programs and a food bank.
Last week, on a morning walk, I encountered another panhandler. I told him I was on a walk for exercise and carried no money. He was in his fifties and appeared well-fed. He was holding about $30 in one hand. He told me he desperately needed money, because he had cancer. He had medical care, but it wouldn’t cover chemotherapy. He tried to cry to make his point. He complained that no one was stopping to donate. At that hour, cars whizzed by, presumably carrying people to work. I told him I thought he’d chosen a bad intersection. “No,” he said. “People here won’t stop because they’re all rich and greedy.” (As an aside, I don’t think he lived here.) As he tried to cry again, he said, “I have two little ones at home and they’re terrified they won’t get another meal.” The light changed and I stepped off the curb. He said, “I really need you to bring back some money. Today. I need a couple hundred. If you would just come back and bring me a couple hundred…” I kept walking.
So why was I interested in helping the first panhandler and not the next? Because I was judging them: one honest panhandler and one phony. But who am I to make that call?
I described my two experiences to a man who works in the mental health field. “If you want to give them money and it makes you feel better, do it. If you think you’re improving their lives in any real way, you’re wrong.”
I recently spoke to a woman in another city who was part of a group working to change public response to panhandling. “Half the city wants to hand out money to all of them,” she said, “and the other half calls the police when they see one. There has to be a middle ground.”
I’m not sure that anyone knows what that middle ground is. Meanwhile, I’ll follow my instincts.