Tis the Season, For Panhandling?

 

I sometimes wonder whether the Savior’s remark that, “…the poor shall be with ye always,” was actually made at a truck stop.  As a Christian, I celebrate this season when the Word became flesh and also observe that, judging from the above quote, in addition to being the Prince of Peace, Christ is also the undisputed King of Understatement.

Pandhandlers are an almost daily fact of life for an over the road trucker.  I don’t know if they think we are loaded with cash, or if maybe it’s the “captive audience” nature of truck stops (we can only park and rest in certain places).  But after maneuvering The Beast backwards into a parking spot, I’ll often look up and see them approaching, eyes darting about, maybe with a sachel of “gold” chains they’re ready to sell, or a forlorn look that cues the violins for the sob story I’m about to hear.  I like to think I’ve achieved a certain level of discernment and can distinguish the truly needy from the thoroughly seedy, but I’m not always sure. 

Over at the Washington Post today, Petula Dvořák discusses the phenomenon in the DC area, and her article got me to thinking. Is there some “one size fits all” response to panhandlers here that doesn’t entail extreme indifference or gullibility? Some people offer to buy a meal for a person who claims to be hungry.  I like that approach, but with the schedules I run, I often times don’t have time to eat lunch myself, let alone watch someone else eat.  I find that I will sometimes hand over a few bucks out of simple expediency rather than debate with the panhandler, and later with my own conscience.  At other times, I’ve become annoyed (especially with the jewelry salesmen), even to the point of offering once to introduce the merchandise to the digestive processes of a particularly tenacious antagonist. 

The words, “I was hungry and ye fed me, I was naked and ye clothed me,” come back to my mind.  Especially at this time of year, as the cold sets in. I have noticed a fortunate trend where the truck stop panhandlers have migrated south, so that their ranks swell in Florida but dwindle in Michigan, where I am today. 

But the images remain. The mass of blankets on the concrete in Alabama, where a young man slept a couple of weeks ago. The veteran in Denver sleeping outside the truck stop, back in 2006, who lost his ka-bar and wanted a few bucks for another to defend himself from hoodlums.  The lady with mascara running down her face, who had tried to surprise her husband at a truck stop only to find him in the sleeper with another woman and now just wanted enough money to put some gas in her car and go home.  The young troop who had lost his bank card and needed gas to get his young family to his next duty station.  All of these people I helped, but there are many that I didn’t.  It’s not always an easy call, and it’s often made more difficult by my own limitations of time, judgement, and resources.  Tis the season, right?

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Rob Long is too proud to beg. But on the National Review cruise, after he appeared on stage without wearing socks, folks passed a basket around.

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    @user_19450

    Wonderful post, Dave. I bet a lot of us struggle to find the balance between being kind and being a chump. In the end, I’d rather err to the “kind” side. But, I fear I fall short most of the time.

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    @DaveRoy

    It’s very hard to decide just who to give to, especially in a panhandler’s paradise like Vancouver, BC. There are certain times it’s obvious that the person needs help, but even if you’re thinking of giving something to the one person, you’re very likely to hit upon three or four more if you’re walking around downtown, even if it’s a short journey.

    Where does it stop?

    Sometimes indifference is the only thing you can practice, because the alternative of giving to everybody who most likely needs it is too much.

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    @katievs

    I with you, Dave. I feel like I’ve been scammed more often than I’ve been of real service. Like by the 30-something guy who accosted me on my way out of the local adoration chapel (!) telling me he was frantic with worry because his mother was in the hospital a half hour away and his car had broken down. I gave him $30 dollars, but felt horrible about it afterwards. Why hadn’t I instead offered to drive him to his mother? (But could I have risked being alone in the car with a drug-addled nutcase?) or told him to explain his dilemma to the priests in the rectory? Was I just taking the easy route? Being the rich lady dispensing largesse?

    But then I think, too, of saints like Dorothy Day and her utter commitment to “the undeserving poor” who chronically took advantage of her, and yet, were converted in gigantic numbers by her self-oblating witness…

    It’s a true dilemma. All I can say is, Lead, Kindly Light.

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    @Talleyrand

    It is rather hard reconciling Christian compassion with Rand’s self-interest (I am not trying to be a smartass here). Sometimes I just give and leave it up to G-d to decide who the deserving poor actually are. Other times my heart is hardened and stony, and I just rush past.

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    @katievs
    David Kube: It is rather hard reconciling Christian compassion with Rand’s self-interest (I am not trying to be a smartass here). · Nov 30 at 8:51am

    True, David. They are not reconcilable.

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    @Midge

    In my city, panhandlers are a big problem — and I’m sure most of them are crooks, or at least people who’d be better off without being rewarded for panhandling.

    I happen to know that the shelters and soup-kitchens of our city are usually underbooked.

    But my reaction to them is all over the map — perhaps it’s just at the whim of my mood or digestion. If I have a non-money item that could be useful to them and would cost me little to replace, like food or a public transportation card, I often offer it. When all I’ve got is cash, I try very hard for indifference, but I don’t always make it… and then I feel like a sucker (which I probably am) afterward. The amount I give when I do succumb is all over the map, too.

    I try to tell myself that by resisting the temptation to be a sucker for panhandlers, I’ll have more to put in the Salvation Army pots. Usually that works.

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    @DaveCarter

    Katievs, you’ve really highlighted a huge issue, where the desire to help crosses with the desire not to be a story on the evening news, as in, “local good samaritan assaulted.” It’s not an easy balance, and who wants to help fund a drug addiction, etc? Ultimately I go with my gut which, for some reason, is connected to my conscience.

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    @DaveCarter

    David, can Christian compassion and Randian self interest be reconciled with the observation that both approaches recognize the right of the individual to dispense of his property as he sees fit, and that it may be an act of self interest to indulge one’s conscience by helping another person? It’s an act of free will, right? Or should I step away from the caffeine?

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    @Midge
    Dave Carter: David, can Christian compassion and Randian self interest be reconciled with the observation that both approaches recognize the right of the individual to dispense of his property as he sees fit, and that it may be an act of self interest to indulge one’s conscience by helping another person? It’s an act of free will, right? Or should I step away from the caffeine?

    No need to step away from the caffeine, sir. Your supposition seems perfectly sound to me.

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    @DaveCarter

    Thanks, MFR. I’m going back for a refill now.

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    @Talleyrand

    Not sure about reconciliation/caffeine Dave, but I do have a great Yiddish joke :

    Two beggars are sitting side by side on a street in Rome.One has a cross in front of him;the other one the Star of David.Many people go by and look at both beggars,but only put money into the hat of the beggarsitting behind the cross.

    A priest comes by, stops and watches people giving money to the beggar behind the cross, but none give to the beggar behind the Star of David.

    Finally, the priest goes over to the beggar behindthe Star of David and says, “My poor fellow, don’t you understand?This is a Catholic country, this city is the seat of Catholicism.People aren’t going to give you money if you sit therewith a Star_of_David in front of you, especially whenyou’re sitting beside a beggar who has a cross.In fact, they would probably give to him just out of spite.” The beggar behind the ‘Star_of_David’ listened to the priest,turned to the other beggar with the cross and said: “Moishe, look who’s trying to teach theGoldstein brothers about marketing.
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    @Midge

    As a matter of fact, when I do give in to panhandlers, I often suspect myself of ultimately harming them for the sake of my own self-indulgence.

    It is not good to fuel people’s addictions and evil habits, to encourage them to stand in busy intersections and highway ramps, where they not only endanger themselves, but the drivers who might accidentally hit them.

    Yet there’s a psychic reward for that “cheap compassion” — for giving them what they want, even though it’s probably bad for them. When I indulge in giving to panhandlers, I’m not only indulging them, but more importantly, myself.

    Tell me, what is moral about encouraging a bad situation simply to make myself feel good?

    But I still do it from time to time.

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    @DaveCarter

    Now THAT was funny!

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    @DianeEllis

    When someone on the street tells me they’re hungry, I recall the words of the Lord that you quoted above, Dave, and I am prevented from continuing on my way until that hungry person is fed. Once, it so happened that my hunger coincided with a homeless youth’s so we ate at a local pizzeria together. Over lunch, I heard his life’s story and had the opportunity to offer a few words of encouragement. I also invited him to a nearby church where I knew he’d be welcome. Considering the big picture, little gestures like these don’t matter much. At the end of the day, the fellow I fed was still homeless and would be returning to his sleeping bag under the freeway overpass. But I like to think that extending kindness and compassion to those in need does matter in some cosmic sense.

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    @DaveCarter

    MFR, your question is the crux of what I wrestle with in these parking lots. Not that I don’t mind confronting the obvious looters, …but of the others I keep wondering about the possibility that they really are in need. I remember once, I was in the car waiting on The Missus to buy something at the store. I had to given her my cash. Up walks an older gentleman wearing a veteran’s cap, and he shows me a little card that said he was deaf and dumb, and would like to sell me some little trinkets he had made to support himself. And didn’t have a dime. I explained this to him, while of course wearing my own veterans cap. He looked so hurt, …deeply hurt that another vet turned him away. I will never forget that look. Is it indulgence? Yes. But that doesn’t make it always wrong.

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    @Paladin

    I wonder how many of the homeless claiming to be veterans really are veterans. It’s a damned shame people lie about it but I know they do. When driving to work I also frequently see people holding signs saying “disabled veteran” and wonder to myself how disabled can they be if they stand on their own two feet all day holding a sign with their obviously functional two hands?

    The liars and con artists among them mean that I won’t ever again give to a panhandler on the street. Salvation Army? Yes. Homeless shelter? Definitely. Soup kitchen? Absolutely. Man on the street? No, nay, never.

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    @JimmyCarter

    I must be in the minority Here. I never give to vagrants and I never feel guilty for not doing so. I pay taxes and give to select organizations.

    There are so many government programs and so many charities Here in America that to be “homeless” and/or hungry is a choice.

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    @katievs
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: As a matter of fact, when I do give in to panhandlers, I often suspect myself of ultimately harming them for the sake of my own self-indulgence.

    It is not good to fuel people’s addictions and evil habits, to encourage them to stand in busy intersections and highway ramps, where they not only endanger themselves, but the drivers who might accidentally hit them.

    Yet there’s a psychic reward for that “cheap compassion” — for giving them what they want, even though it’s probably bad for them. When I indulge in giving to panhandlers, I’m not only indulging them, but more importantly, myself.

    Tell me, what is moral about encouraging a bad situation simply to make myself feel good?

    But I still do it from time to time. · Nov 30 at 9:23am

    You’ve nailed the problem exactly, MFR.

    But indifference is no solution for the Christian conscience. They are human beings and so are we.

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    @TripedisCanis

    Rule of thumb: If they’ve got a story that’s not too pat, they’re probably worth helping. Dave’s examples of folks who have encountered a bad moment in their lives, and need help to get past it, would pass. A guy in a veteran’s cap who’ll tell you when and where he served would also be alright, more often than not. People who answer questions with, “Man, I just need to eat!” are probably going to get a brush-off from me.

    Not to say that a slick con artist couldn’t come up with a decent story. But if it’s good enough, I’ll pay for the entertainment value. It ain’t charity, then.

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    @katievs
    Dave Carter: can Christian compassion and Randian self interest be reconciled with the observation that both approaches recognize the right of the individual to dispense of his property as he sees fit, and that it may be an act of self interest to indulge one’s conscience by helping another person? It’s an act of free will, right? Or should I step away from the caffeine? · Nov 30 at 9:09am

    Both recognize the right of property, but the Randian notion of self-interest includes contempt for others, especially for the weak and helpless.

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    @DaveCarter

    Katievs, that is an interesting take. I’d love to explore it more, but I’m off to Grand Rapids and points still further north. Brrrrrr

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    @DevinCole

    When I was younger, I felt that giving food was a good alternative to handing out money to panhandlers. Then, a friend of mine pointed out that this only encouraged the behavior. Money or food by panhandling provides an incentive not to seek the things one needs in life through other ways, such as work. Leading a Christian life provides an opportunity to provide both grace and justice, and the choice should be made based on what is best for the individual in question. I would say panhandlers typically are better served by justice. There are places they can have their needs met other than big rig parking lots and street corners. Obviously, the young lady in tears after finding her husband cheating is a exception and likely benefited greatly through your grace, Dave. However, I think you can be compassionate, Christian, and still refuse money and food to the overwhelming majority of those who ask in these circumstances.

    I think it is all the more important, then, for the Church to work to help the poor and the weak, even those who panhandle. Guiding these to better places to meet these needs is the duty of the Church.

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    @user_59824
    Jimmy Carter: I must be in the minority Here. I never give to vagrants and I never feel guilty for not doing so. I pay taxes and give to select organizations.

    There are so many government programs and so many charities Here in America that to be “homeless” and/or hungry is a choice. · Nov 30 at 9:41am

    As a former longtime resident of NYC, truly the motherland of all panhandlers, I couldn’t agree more.

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    @DanHolmes
    Elizabeth Dunn

    Jimmy Carter: I must be in the minority Here. I never give to vagrants and I never feel guilty for not doing so. I pay taxes and give to select organizations.

    There are so many government programs and so many charities Here in America that to be “homeless” and/or hungry is a choice. · Nov 30 at 9:41am

    As a former longtime resident of NYC, truly the motherland of all panhandlers, I couldn’t agree more. · Nov 30 at 2:58pm

    Offer to give them a lift to Salvation Army or another downtown homeless shelter, where they can get long-term real help, and you’ll always be turned down. Ask them to somehow verify their story of hard luck, if it is verifiable, and they go away fast.

    I’d say at least 95 out of 100 are lying scam artists. As to the other five percent? See above.

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    @BillWalsh

    A friend of mine was approached years ago by a D.C. panhandler who said, “Excuse me, sir, could you please see your way clear to giving me a quarter towards the purchase of a home in Potomac?”

    He gave him a buck.

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    @DavidWard

    I always give a few dollars. While I’m sure many of the people who have asked were buying beer or whatnot, I genuinely believe it’s helped many times too. My mother always gives a $20 when it’s freezing cold, and we are not a rich family, in fact she grew up poor without much to eat.

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