Commentary: What to Do About Panhandlers?

by Julie Pierson

After reading the article by Fred L. Buford urging caution when giving money to homeless persons, I feel moved to respond.

I agree that there may be people who are liars about their economic plights and people who rip off innocent and well-meaning folks like those of us who even contemplate helping people in this way. But I prefer to approach the matter differently than Mr. Buford.

As a social worker and churchgoer, I have spoken with clergy on several occasions about the problem described by Mr. Buford. From them I have learned a more respectful, non-enabling, approach: offer noncash assistance rather than outright rejection. For example, offer to write a check to the landlady (if rent is requested), buy a bus ticket (if transportation is needed) or offer a sandwich and a cup of coffee. The person is free to refuse these offers, of course, but he or she will not have been dubbed a liar or a fraud by a donor who makes unexamined assumptions about his or her character.

In another scenario, my daughter, who lives in New York City, puts ten dollars in her pocket each week, which she distributes in small portions to whomever requests help in her daily movements around Manhattan. She decides ahead of time on the extent of her charity, then gives freely though moderately until her cash is gone. The only time she declines to give is when she feels accosted or threatened in some way. She makes no other judgments about the “truly needy” versus the “truly greedy.”

Whose judgment is it to make, anyhow? I sometimes wonder if we “givers” aren’t the truly greedy when judgmentally deciding to whom to extend and from whom to withhold our largesse.

Published by the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio May 1994 Issue 6