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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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