I used to hate walking past panhandlers. When I saw someone on the street asking for money, I felt awkward, overly-privileged, sympathetic, suspicious and altruistic; sometimes sequentially, sometimes kind of all at once. The way I behaved depended on which emotion dominated as I approached the person, but nothing felt really right.
Let me explain:
One frigid December morning, maybe four years ago, I walked past a tall African-American man panhandling by my usual Bethesda, Maryland parking garage. Actually, I had walked past him many times, always trying to figure out how best to respond to his entreaties.
I tried different things. One time, I shook my head with a quick whisper of "no, sorry." Another time, I pretended to be talking emphatically on my cell phone, so I really couldn't possibly have noticed him. Once, I dropped some coins into his empty Dunkin' Donuts cup. Twice, I scurried past him with my head down.
All those times, I was basically just reacting; man in trouble, want to help. I suspect I was thinking as much about what felt good to me as about what might do good for him.
At any rate, one day I stopped in front of him, stuck out my hand and introduced myself. "Tony" thanked me for stopping, and asked if I would help him. I told him I wouldn't give him money, but I would buy him something to eat. He asked for orange juice and a bagel, so I got him some. In the following weeks, I offered Tony a blanket (he accepted); he asked me for gloves (I brought a pair).
Here's where I fess up: I gave Tony "stuff," rather than money, because I was afraid he would use the cash to buy booze.
Ugh. I know.
Overall, Tony did seem to appreciate my efforts. So I continued on, providing him with snacks and sundries, either what I thought he'd want, or what he requested.
Frankly, I felt pretty good about myself.
Then one day I saw him walk into a liquor store. I felt angry and oddly betrayed, and I can assure you that that marked the end of my gifts to him.
Right Instinct, Wrong Response
Like most of us, I want to help people in distress. With panhandlers, though, I never knew whether the person was truly in need. I worried that my money would fuel some addiction, rather than funding food or shelter. I worried that I was being scammed.
Was I right?
Well, sometimes. Statistics show that fewer than half of panhandlers are living unsheltered, but some are. Others are housed but living below the poverty line, with basic needs unmet. Many panhandlers are, though, straight-up hustlers; others -- whether or not housed -- will indeed take your money and spend it on vices.
So how do you know which panhandler is "legit"?
Trick question! The answer is: it doesn't matter. By giving money to any panhandler, you are enabling him, not helping him.
Look at it this way: he doesn't need a fish for a day. He needs to learn to fish. If defeating poverty, homelessness or hunger is important to you, if you want to help that panhandler, don't give him money. Give it to a local group working on housing, on job training, on mental health issues. Organizations tackle those issues as efficiently and effectively as possible; it's what we do, it's our entire raison d'etre.
Want to know what the solution for homelessness is?
The cure for unemployment?
You get the idea. The cure is never your $0.75. That gift may satisfy you for that moment, but it will not solve that panhandler's problems. It will, though, encourage him to keep soliciting.
One morning three months ago, I was in our drop-in day shelter, talking to a man who was living in a nearby Metro stop. He had a hood pulled over his head, and a McDonald's cup in his hand. I could tell by the smell that it did not contain a McShake. He saw me glance at it, knew that I knew. Head down, he said, "I know I shouldn't be doing this. I know I am killing myself. But when I wake up in that Metro stop, I just have to kill all those awful thoughts in my head...." He trailed off and finally looked at me, tears in his eyes.
Son of a gun. It was Tony. The guy I wrote off, for drinking.
So I had been right, and I had been wrong. He was, in fact, "legit." But he needed a home a lot more than he needed that bagel.