We’ve all had that same sinking feeling when we stop at a red light and we’re approached by a panhandler.
Sometimes we play with the radio or make a fake cell phone call to pretend they’re not there. We try not to make eye contact and impatiently count the seconds until the light turns green.
A dog on the leash and signs that say “Hungry,” “Anything Helps” and “God Bless” only makes the uncomfortable encounter even worse.
And we’ve all felt hopeless, guilty and uncaring as we pull away.
Are we wrong?
Most experts say no.
It’s important to understand, when you give money to a panhandler, the money is no longer in your control. It’s theirs to spend, which, too often, includes buying alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. And those who deal directly with the homeless and street hustlers say most dollars they get only deepens, if not worsens, their dilemma.
“There are those who are terminally homeless, and that’s a nice way to put it, who have been manipulating people and causing destruction on good citizens,” said Chief Ken Stivers of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. “A lot of these people play on the sympathy of those of us who want to give, say what we want to hear, take what we have to give, do what they’re going to do with it and not learn anything.”
Stivers said the homeless generally fit into one of three categories – down and out families, drug addicts and alcoholics and the mentally ill. All three present unique challenges to the sheriff’s office and the community.
There are programs to help families who’ve been misplaced, including occupational training, financial management and a temporary home until they reach “a point where they can come out on their own,” Stiver said. “Believe it or not, these are the easiest. We know what their needs are, we can meet those direct needs and help them live a good life.”
The other groups are more problematic. Addicts and alcoholics panhandle to feed their habits, and they generally don’t let anyone get in their way. Most organizations that work with people who are chronically homeless agree it’s best to save your money.
Homeless Hub and the Phoenix Rescue Mission said you are better offering small gift cards to a restaurant, clean clothes, soap, toilet paper, granola bars or bottled water. If you feel a real need to help, donate directly to a food bank or homeless shelter.
“The question of ‘should I give money?’ is really is a choice that you need to make for yourself,” Homeless Hub asks on its web page. “However, if you choose to give someone money, what that money gets spent on is no longer in your control. When you give a server a tip at a restaurant you don’t get to dictate that they should only buy food or pay for housing with it. The money is theirs and the spending choice is theirs.”
According to Stivers, too often that means buying drugs and alcohol.
“No person is going to stand in the way to them getting whatever it is they’re going to get,” he said. “They do not want you meddling in their life. They want your money, then they want you to leave them alone. Are they beyond help? No. They sit on the corner and beg, sometimes making upwards of $600 a day to buy drugs.”
Some eventually break the cycle after being arrested several times and “drying out” while sitting in jail.
But in reality, most addicts don’t escape. Easy money isn’t free. It comes with a substantial price.
“We can prolong their death, which is inevitable,” Stivers said.
Begging for money without a permit is illegal in Clay County since it often involves them harassing people on busy street corners, medians and parking lots.
Someone who is down-and-out needs our support, not our money. We need to encourage them to find programs that will get them off the streets and back into a functional roll in our community. What’s really needed here is real change, not spare change.