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To give or not to give (to panhandlers): a quandary and an experiment

You are in your car waiting for a green light and there they are — people with cardboard signs requesting money. What’s your gut response?

Rev. Jean E. Greenwood

Over the years when I’ve encountered panhandlers, I’ve felt torn. Is this a time for compassion, giving to those less fortunate, or for refusing to enable a drug/alcohol habit? Frankly, I’ve grown tired of feeling awkward, uncertain, mildly guilty. So, one day I launched an experiment:

Heading home from the dentist one chilly April morning, I exited the freeway and stopped at the red light, ready to turn left. Just outside my window stood a 40-ish man, with droopy hat, salt and pepper beard, and a crumpled sign I couldn’t read. I lowered my window, and kept my hands on the wheel so he wouldn’t expect a monetary gift (I donate to anti-poverty work instead).

“Hi, how’re you doing?” I asked. He broke into a smile, “Good, except it’s a little chilly today.” “Sure is,” I said. “How are you?” he asked, taking me by surprise. “Good, except I’m just coming from the dentist,” I replied, putting my hand to my cheek. “Oh, that’s too bad,” he offered. “I hate going to the dentist, avoid it as long as I can, until my cheek swells up,” he said. “That kind of pain in your head is the worst!” I agreed. “I feel for you having gone to the dentist!” he continued, as sincere as could be. “Thanks,” I said, surprised by this show of empathy, “and I feel for you standing out here in the cold.” “Could be worse,” he said, “Could be 4 inches of snow falling.”

Just then the light turned green. “Have a great rest of your day,” he said with a generous smile. “I hope you have a great day, too,” I said. “Blessings to you.” He grinned and waved, and I did the same. All the way home I savored the moment, pondering what had just happened. I arrived home with such a good feeling — here where I least expected it, a whisper of connection, and compassion, spontaneously given — I will remember that he said it first: “I feel for you.”

The experiment, however, didn’t end there. Curious how others respond to panhandlers, I posted the vignette on Nextdoor, and received 35 “thanks” and 16 comments, with an intriguing range of perspectives.

Some offer non-monetary gifts, e.g. hygiene packs, snacks. One commented, “conversations during these exchanges have been most humbling.”

One person acknowledged giving money: “I tell my name, ask their name, ask about their kids, how it’s going. Next time I say hello by name. I’m also practicing giving $ without judgement–it’s been heart-opening.”

Another smiles, makes eye contact: “I think it chips away at our humanity when we don’t ‘see’ one another, as uncomfortable as it may be.” One notes, “We can bypass human contact these days without realizing it.”

Then a cautionary tale: “Beware that many so called ‘homeless’ people actually are not; they create traffic problems, and leave behind garbage and drug paraphernalia. My neighbors along 2nd Avenue have terrible problems with the criminal element these people attract. Recently one neighbor reported a man defecating in his yard. After chasing him away, he found a concrete block thrown through his car window. He’s the 4th neighbor putting his home on the market. I’m glad you didn’t give the person any money and that your exchange was pleasant. But I don’t think this is a practice we want to encourage in our residential areas.”

“I was on the bus one night late,” wrote another. “A young lady I’ve seen panhandling sat behind me with a gentleman I’ve also seen on corners. They compared their recent earnings–each averaged $100-200 per shift, enough to pay the month’s rent, bus fare, and food, plus she was excited about getting her hair done. She’s also an apparent drug addict, proof would be facial sores and they discussed what dealer to get their next ‘stuff’ from. Since then, I don’t give cash, just food. A police officer told me they make $500 on a good night in a prime spot. Most regulars are not homeless. Most have drug problems or mental illness and lots of violence to contend with. We still must have compassion for everyone surviving in these conditions.”

“We all have limitations, lack of awareness,” wrote another, “not always one’s own fault, for which no one should be judged, hated, ignored. Mercy is needed by all of us at times.”

“I appreciate sympathy for those genuinely in need,” wrote one, “but the abundant social assistance, drug/alcohol treatment, available in MN precludes any excuse for panhandling unless it’s a lifestyle choice.”

A creative idea: “Talk to them–‘If you’ve earned $4, instead of feeding your demon, buy a case of bottled water and pass it out to people passing by.”

And advice for me: “Keep it up–it’s community–you gave that man something much more valuable than money–you gave him a sense of connection and the chance to give something to someone, which must have really made his day.”

I will keep it up. I guess I’m trying for compassion and discernment. For me, it’s not a time to give money — research I’ve read suggests most panhandlers are supporting a drug habit. Maybe we should give contact info for the nearest shelter, as well as being ready to call 911 if we see something of concern.

Perhaps it’s good to feel torn, to wrestle with life’s complexities as we try to make a difference in our world, making good use of the time, energy and resources we have.

Jean E. Greenwood, M.Div., is a Presbyterian minister, mediator/facilitator, restorative justice specialist, writer, with adjunct teaching experience at the University of Minnesota, United Theological Seminary, Hamline Law School, Metro State. She can be reached at green104@umn.edu.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Susan Herridge on 12/15/2017 - 11:27 am.

    Thank you!

    Thank you for doing this, and writing about this. I wrestle with this often at stoplights. I have settled on giving a $10 gift card to Brueggers and a small pamphlet made by St. Stephens shelter with phone numbers and information on where to get assistance. St. Stephens recommends no gifts of money, as it keeps them locked in to the wrong system.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/15/2017 - 12:39 pm.

    Panhandlers

    I worked at a liquor store back in the day. The neighborhood panhandlers would come in and buy booze with change and crumpled up bills, sometimes several times a day per person.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/15/2017 - 12:55 pm.

    Donations

    If you want to help people out, then giving them money directly is the worst thing you can do. Whether their issue is homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or something else, cash is more effective if it’s given to a program, shelter, or some other mechanism designed to help them get off the street.

    Here’s why.

    If you give people money (or goods) directly, then they get their immediate needs met. Whether that’s a warm pair of socks, hot coffee, or enough cash for their next drug fix. With those immediate concerns taken care of, they’re good to go until the next crisis looms, at which time you’ll see them on the street corner again with the sign.

    If they’re not getting those needs met though, that’s when they start looking for additional help. The shelters and programs can steer them towards long term solutions to life’s problems–solutions that don’t include begging on the corner or robbing someone.

    It’s a case of looking at the bigger picture and what the long term goal is.

  4. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 12/15/2017 - 03:33 pm.

    Everywhere

    I used to see panhandling mostly downtown but now it’s everywhere. Just lately I have seen it Cub Foods in Crystal and an intersection near Super Target in Plymouth – a woman (close to my age) on a bitterly cold day. She had positioned herself near a left turn lane at a stoplight so there was no option to stop….just to hand her a few bucks as waited for the light to change. I would like to know her story. I promised myself if I saw her again I would at least talk with her. In the meantime, I pray for her every day.

  5. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/15/2017 - 06:46 pm.

    Its not my business…

    …how money that I give someone is spent, giving with conditions is not charitable at all. So what if its only meeting someone’s immediate needs? Don’t they need to be met? For whatever reason some folks don’t trust shelters or organized programs, they prefer to make it on their own. If you want to give money give money and don’t judge how the person spends it. You don’t know their background or their struggles. Years ago, while I was coming out of my own struggles, I spent some time “volunteering” (court ordered community service) at 1800 Chicago. I don’t remember the persons name but one of the staff there told me that these were the hardcore alcoholics. There was very little, he may have said no, chance of rehabilitating them, the best they could do was make them comfortable for a night or two. If my buck can make their miserable life a little better for an hour or two what the hell.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/15/2017 - 08:41 pm.

    It’s the….

    economy, the disparity and the inequity driving and perpetuating these individual stories….

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