Panhandler Protocol

Should you fish out a toonie or walk on by? the answer isn’t always obvious

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Published in United Church Observer in January 2016

I grew up in small-town Ontario and never encountered homeless people, panhandlers or “bums,” as the people in my world called them then. So when I went to New York City on my honeymoon in 1986 at age 23, I was shocked.

There were destitute people everywhere - curled up over subway grates on sidewalks, sleeping on benches in Central Park and slumped against the luxury storefronts on Fifth Avenue.

When my husband gave an older panhandler $10, the man was so taken aback he slung his arm around my husband’s shoulder and offered to buy him a hotdog.

And I’ll never forget the young woman, literally barefoot and very pregnant, asking people on the street for dimes. Yes, dimes. “God bless you! God bless you!” she sang out when I handed over a few coins.

The impulse in my youthful days was to give money to pretty much anyone who asked. In the years since, certain incidents have made me more cautious.

I once had a ragged man in Cleveland yell at me after I turned down his request for money. “I’m a Vietnam vet!” he railed. “I almost died for this country!”

Then there was the woman who asked for bus fare to get to a shelter in a neighbouring city - but turned down my offer of a ride.

To be sure, there have been positive encounters, too: a quiet exchange in a supermarket parking lot when I invited a homeless man to pick out what he wanted from my cart, his eyes lighting up at a bag of oranges.

A handful of times, I’ve bought sandwiches or coffee for people - usually women, because I’m not as comfortable with men on the street. But more often than not, I walk on by, proffering a weak smile.

When I do give money, it’s usually on a whim - I’m in a particularly good mood, or change is easily accessible. Maybe it’s close to Christmas and I don’t want to be a Scrooge, or my kids are with me and I feel I should set a good example.

The truth is, most of the time I just don’t know what to do.

In search of answers, I take my dilemma to the oracle. No, not the Good Book in this instance: Facebook.

I ask my friends what they do in this situation, and the post generates almost 60 responses. Most say yes, they try to give something, either money or food.

A brave few occasionally strike up conversations and have even offered handshakes and hugs. One handed out Christmas cards to some of the street people she sees regularly.

Some stopped giving after negative experiences - their offer of food was refused, or they were asked to cough up more money. Several noted that giving money is an easy feel-good fix that takes a lot less sacrifice than, say, serving food at a shelter or writing a generous cheque to an anti-poverty organization.

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