FIRST PERSON: When to Say "Yes" and When to Say "No" to Panhandlers

By Jack Bragen
Wednesday February 22, 2012 - 09:50:00 AM

Panhandling has always been an important part of human existence, ever since people were put in poverty by a society that sometimes lacks mercy. It is not fair or accurate to say that you should never give money to a panhandler. There are people who would perish without the generosity of strangers. We can not presume to know that they created their own problems and should reap the results. There are plenty of people who became poor largely due to circumstances that weren't under their control. 

I have given coins out of my pocket to panhandlers under certain circumstances, and sometimes not, when I felt that it would jeopardize me or someone to do so. I have compiled a guide that works for me concerning when I give a few coins in my pocket or not. Since I rarely carry cash except for these few coins which serve as meter money or candy bar money, I am not in a situation of getting my wallet out. 

To begin with, since I am a smoker I get asked for cigarettes a lot. However, many of those who ask me for one look like they could possibly be underage. In these instances, I always refuse. (I do not have to give a reason.) On the other hand, if someone appears close to my age and also does not appear to be an undercover cop, I will often give someone a smoke when asked. For those who believe that smoking is a horrendous evil, just ignore this part of the manuscript. 

When someone is holding a sign at a freeway off ramp, I drive by without helping that person. I send that person good thoughts. However, I do not want to create a hazardous situation that could cause a car accident. You are not doing anyone a favor when you block traffic to give to a panhandler, especially when this causes a car accident that could entail someone getting injured. 

Is someone appears threatening to me, I do not give help. This is entirely by my perception and does not rely on an attempt at objectivity. If I feel threatened, it is bad for me to help the person who is associated with that feeling, even if it is only in my own mind. I will remain polite to that person and will speak respectfully, but will not give money in return for intimidation. (Of course this idea does not include the IRS.) How do you know if someone is truly threatening you? Often you don't know and must operate by what feels real from your own limited perspective. If someone is exchanging threat for cash, it is not a gift, it is extortion. This is a bully-ism and is a different idea than the threat of a crime being perpetrated, which I cover next. 

If it is late at night, if the situation seems scary, or if you think you could be a victim of robbery or violence, then you must do whatever works in that situation. Usually that entails getting some distance as quickly as possible, and doing so without increasing your vulnerability-which getting out your wallet or getting close to a person would do. I was in front of a Macy's at a mall when three gentlemen who appeared to be sporting a tough guy fashion, (you know, the goatees and scarves over the heads) approached me and one of them said, "Give it up." Rather than standing there waiting for them to get closer, I quickly stood from the bench (where I had been reading) and ran into the Macy's so that anything that would happen would be recorded by their security cameras. The three followed me in but then realized they were among Macy's shoppers, and they proceeded to look like idiots, and then they left. 

A few years ago, I was in front of a McDonald's and had just bought a couple of hamburgers, when a man begged for help and said that he was starving to death and had problems with his blood sugar. I handed my hamburger to that man. He was quite grateful. 

When I am on foot, and in public where everything feels safe, and someone asks for spare change in a respectful way (they do not need to humiliate themselves or beg, they just need to be polite) I will give that person whatever change is in my pocket, which might total less than a dollar, or which could be a couple dollars. If I had more income and if I carried cash more often, I would give more. In addition to the change I am offering, I am giving the message of unconditional love. This does something to better the human condition.