How Should We Handle Panhandlers?

(photo: Image Credit: booledozer, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Their signs are usually made from squares of cardboard. They vary in their messages, saying things such as “Out of work,” “Please help, will take any coins,” “Have two kids and lost job,” and “Any change will help.”

You’ve seen them on your way to work or on your lunch break. They include the thousands of panhandlers standing on many of our cities’ corners and intersections. Some are homeless, some are teens, some are vets and some are just trying to make ends meet. They range in age, circumstances and needs.  

In discussing this issue let’s start with a few realities. The first is this: The idea that these unfortunate souls are making money by the bucket loads is an urban myth.

Another thought: Are we contributing to the problem by handing them a few dollars just to ease our own guilt? Even though giving them money may be giving us a sense of helping others, since volunteering at food banks and food kitchens take time away from our already busy schedules, is it really the right thing to do? Aren’t there more useful ways to extend a helping hand?

One more reality to consider: Standing and asking for money is probably a very difficult thing to do. In many ways it has to be humiliating, embarrassing and yes, even cold.  

Don’t we also tend to sit in judgment when we see these people? It’s difficult not to judge since the likelihood is pretty strong that any money you do give them would go for alcohol, drugs or tobacco. Finally, for them, having others look down on them must deepen the poverty they are experiencing in their souls. Is there not a more constructive way to help if you want to make a difference?

I would like to recommend we begin to help by treating each person with kindness and respect no matter how they arrived at our local corners with their signs. Avoiding eye contact, not talking to them and putting them down by judging them, is extremely hurtful. Offering a smile, showing you care, just acknowledging they are people, I believe is a good place to start. I read somewhere that “the greatest poverty is the poverty of relationships.” I think it must certainly be true in this case.

There are many shelters for homeless that will accept donations. Instead of money, offering food snacks and food coupons is another way to help. Giving bus tickets and directions to food kitchens and shelters is a help. Many Catholic parishes and Catholic schools are offering to serve meals on a daily basis in many cities. We have a Catholic church in Portland that collects and delivers food to families in need on a regular basis. A sure way to help is to sign up to volunteer. The parish I belong to has a “food closet” which consists of a trailer that accepts food donations daily. Many people who are in need can come by for a box of food.

For over two years I would see a man on my way to work every day at the intersection before getting onto the freeway heading towards downtown Portland. I would bring him a cup of coffee and a croissant and we would have a brief conversation every day. It rains a lot in Portland and someone brought him a hat. Another person brought him a blanket.  He was in a wheelchair. He had lost one leg and part of his other leg. I think the blanket made him less embarrassed about his circumstances. He didn’t carry a sign asking for money although a few people gave it to him. Mainly he just liked saying “hi”. I finally asked him one day what his name was. I also asked if I could say a prayer for him and he smiled and said, “Yes, absolutely.” He told me his name was “Jesse.”

When I was a young girl if we happen to see someone struggling in some way, my mother would say “God has a special place in heaven for someone like that. We should say a prayer for them.” So this would be the one gift you should give when you see the panhandlers in need: the gift of your prayers.

I no longer see Jesse at the intersection. I’m afraid he’s no longer with us. I’m grateful I got to know him. I pray that God has welcomed him and gave him that special place in heaven my mother talked about. I feel pretty certain this is one prayer God has answered saying “Yes, absolutely.”