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Saturday, December 06, 2008

The PANHANDLE Question

One of those perennially unresolved questions in my life: what should I do when someone, not of my acquaintance, asks me for money, for food or bus fare?

I claim no insight into this except that to walk past someone as though I didn't hear the question, as though the person were not there, is not an acceptable solution. For me. I make no judgment about what others do, in part because I'm so inconsistent in my own thinking.

I used to give, then I used not to give. I've walked into a pizza joint and given money to the proprietor, telling him to get the fellow a couple slices.

One time a friend and I were in Washington Park in Albany and a guy came up to us and asked for some specific amount of money - $2.87 or something like that. He said he was a VietNam vet and that he was going to use the money to buy liquor. And we GAVE it to him. Either it was so honest that we could not resist or a most excellent con.

And that's what the real issue is, isn't it? You give money to someone who says he needs food and you're afraid that he'll use it on booze and drugs.

While I understand the logistical reason for doing so, I miss the bus tokens that the bus company, the CDTA, used to sell. I used to buy 10 of them for $9.50 and when someone hit me up for bus fare, I'd just give her a token. They put the kibosh on tokens, BTW, because other items - foreign coins, casino slugs, etc. - could replicate the tokens in the machinery.

I figured out that some folks would then sell the token I gave them to someone for cash, and then buy something else.

This has particularly come to mind, not just because it's the Advent season but because of the Gospel lesson in the liturgy a couple weeks ago, Matthew 25:31-46, which reads in part:
Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father...For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

This article also came to mind.

So, to be crude about it, aren't we directed to help that smelly, crazy-looking guy on the street? The fact that I give to registered charities doesn't take me off the hook when face to face with a human in need. Does it?

I had this conversation with my sister who was musing on the very same issue. She noted that her own safety and security is an issue. I can understand that, which is why I give change and even a crumpled single dollar bill from my pocket, but am resistant to show my wallet. On the other hand, her pastor suggested that if you give money based on one piece of information and the user does something else, that's on them, not on you. Or are you suppose to "discern" their motivation?

In the words of the Beatles' second movie title, "HELP!"



Greg said...

My problem in regard to this is I almost never have cash on me. I use my debit card for pretty much everything, and therefore never have bills OR change. I have change in my car, but usually I'm nowhere near it when I get asked for things. I feel guilty telling people that, but it's true 99% of the time. The other 1% is usually when I have twenties in my wallet, and that seems like too much to give, doesn't it? Heck, I don't know. I've never given anyone $20, but again, I usually don't have it. If I happen to have small denominations in my pocket, I usually give it to anyone who asks. I honestly don't care what they do with it. I always feel like I should offer to buy the guy lunch or something, but very often I have things to do or the guy is standing at the exit to the freeway, which makes it inconvenient.

It's a difficult question, because there's so much else going on with panhandlers that giving them a dollar isn't going to make much difference. I'd rather give money to charities.

Uthaclena said...

Iself am pretty non-discriminating about giving away "spare change" for whatever reason; a high-school fund-raiser, or local Pop Warner team; a seedy-looking vagrant, or a neat-looking fellow with a "sob-story." If I have coin in my pocket, they can have it. I really don't agonize about what they are really planning on doing with it - I agree that it's on them at that point. Only once did I give away several dollars, after being given a well-reasoned story about travel connections falling through that left them stranded. They offered to take my address and reimburse me, but I just asked that they "pay it forward."

EM said...

I've been in social services too long and seen too much, I think, to be indifferent to requests. I give if I have the change, usually. If the request is for bus fare, I'll give them a ticket, since I always have them on me. I can't control what they do with what I give them and I believe too strongly in an individual's right to choose/make their own lives as they see fit not to try and offer something if I have it.

That's not to say that I don't have bad days where I simply don't want to deal with the hassle. Or that the more extreme violations of my personal space don't make me inclined not to give. The guy who grabbed my arm in San Francisco one time and wouldn't let go, for example.

Dan Van Riper said...


Strange that you missed an important point. I stopped giving money to panhandlers because I got tired of being ripped off by scammers posing as homeless people. And I stopped because when people take advantage of me I get very angry.

When I was getting by on low paying jobs, I would hand over my last few bucks to somebody with a terrific sob story... and the next day I'd hear them give the same exact story to some other sucker, who'd hand them money. Then I'd think, now wait a minute. I gave him my last two bucks, the other guy gave him some money, and now I have nothing until payday.

Here's the problem. It's a fine line between scamming and trying to make a living by begging on the street. Or rather it's a big gray area. Now, I'm delighted to give to someone who really is homeless, they need it more than me. Besides, I could end up out on the street myself without warning. That panhandler could be me.

But how do I judge who is legitimately homeless, and who is some jerk pulling a scam? Should I ask for their resumes? Or is the problem we have with panhandling that we are each, without warning, called upon to pass instant judgement? Is the refusal to give an abrogation of responsibility? Or is the refusal to give a protest against the demand to pass judgement?

I retreated into the drastic policy of never giving money to no one nohow, with rare exceptions. At times I've done the "No, I won't give you money for gas for your car to take your baby to the hospital, but I have a can of gas for my lawnmower. Where's your car parked?" which almost inevitably deflects the urgent request. Suddenly the baby doesn't need to go to the hospital anymore. Indeed the panhandler/scammer often gets really rude at this point and stalks off.

As for a panhandler spending my dough on drugs and alcohol, I don't really care. This is a whole sordid branch of morality for which I have little patience. Let's look at this. A homeless person panhandles enough for a bottle of wine to get through the cold night. Meanwhile, some suit and tie peddles bad mortgages to a greedy financial house, and then the financial house collapses and wipes out a pile of 401k retirement funds that decent people worked hard to save. Now, who's the bigger bum, who does more damage to society?

Anthony said...

One day, panhandlers will have cell phones with the technology to swipe ATM cards, so that those who don't typically carry cash can still give.

Okay, really, Richard Foster suggests that Xians intentionally practice both reasoned and risk giving. In other words, do research and give to organizations that you know are reputable, and along with this, occasionally give money to people who don't necessarily look on the up and up. The idea is that on the whole we ought to be wise stewards of money but allow for "unreasonable" acts of giving to demonstrate that we are not subject to the laws of mammon.