Most of us have seen or been confronted by a panhandler at some point in our lives, which has likely elicited a variety of emotions within each of us. Lately, the issue has been right in our faces as there is rarely a chance that we venture out in our vehicles without seeing panhandling activities. I think most of us just want it right. We don’t like to be handled, manipulated or compelled in our giving. Most of us want to give. To me it becomes a matter of how to give and will it matter.
Use common sense and “gut” instinct
Because of my role in working in social services, I’m often asked advice on how to handle panhandling. Not wanting to dictate a “one size fits all” response, I’ve generally advised friends and associates to use good common sense. Be sensitive to your own “gut” instinct or that “inner voice” when considering how to respond. Each situation is different. Whereas one solicitation might lead to real danger, another might very well fulfill a sincere and legitimate need.
Carry panhandling cards
If a person is relatively clean I consider him a panhandler. Panhandlers range from people down on their luck to greedy jerks preying on good people. There are many social services out there to help the person down on their luck. I address the issue personally by carrying cards that reference the local food pantries and churches that feed people in need. It allows me to proactively approach a panhandler with a compassionate and sensible response that allows them to receive help.
Work within the law
We must work within the framework of the law wherein there are inherent rights allowing individuals to solicit help. Federal, state and local laws that outline acceptable standards of conduct when soliciting are available from your local Sheriffs office.
Understand panhandlers’ requests vary
I think we need to understand the context and need of what the panhandler is really asking for. Typically, we are led to believe that those needs are food, clothing or housing. Some panhandlers are legitimately trying to sustain basic unmet needs. Many are mentally ill, physically disabled or otherwise have legitimate barriers resulting in unmet needs for themselves or their families. However, many are not. In our area we believe based on 2 years of work in the field that 70 to 80 percent of them were not homeless, often worked in organized rings and typically didn’t utilize available community resources designed to meet the very needs they were requesting help for.
Listen to your conscience
Lastly, we need to work within the framework of our own conscience. Do we give or not give? Will my aid help or hurt the person, i.e., is he buying food or alcohol? Will my $20 solve the problem or make it worse? Will my actions have unintended consequences or achieve the desired outcome?
While I believe there are better means whereby we can support those in need, I stand by my advice shared at the beginning of this article — give according to conscience, but do so with a better understanding of the issues surrounding the problem. If you are giving to make yourself feel good, your good intentions may not have the impact you desired.