This phenomenon doesn't seem to be focused in our particular location. As part of the job I have, I drive throughout our county on a daily basis during the school year and almost every busy streetlight is manned by one person or another with a sign describing their predicament, asking for money and invariably ending with "God Bless". I've seen one woman in a business skirt and heels darting between stopped traffic with a sign plastered with pictures of her younger brothers who she needed help caring for. I've seen signs advertising the panhandler's status as a veteran. I've seen signs saying that the panhandler really needed a drink.
Today, while leaving Wal-Mart, a young couple was panhandling with this sign:
Rent Past Due
For whatever reason, their sign did not inspire my pity. The sight of young, able-bodied people turning to panhandling as a way to pay the rent didn't incline me to be sympathetic. DH joked that maybe it was an experiment for their sociology class to see what sort of response they would get.
Panhandling usually invokes the twin powers of suspicion and guilt within me; suspicion because I have a sense that most panhandlers are simply manipulating people for money and guilt because I feel as if I should be more kind and generous in my appraisal of them and my response to them. These two feeling usually see-saw back and forth within me, causing me sometimes to avoid the panhandlers and sometimes to give money to them.
While sitting at a red light at one of the frequent panhandling intersections near our home, I watched a man walking up the sidewalk. He was muscular and somewhat fit. His clothes were slightly bedraggled and his face was covered with rough stubble. He eventually reached the intersection, plopped down an army green duffel bag and pulled out a cardboard sign. It said he was an injured, homeless veteran from Iraq.
He proceeded to work the lanes of stopped traffic with a limping, hobbling gait, one that was nowhere to be seen a minute earlier when I had watched him approaching on the sidewalk. I shook my head in frustration and made a point to remember him so that I wouldn't get suckered if he happened to become a frequent fixture.
DH is much more zen about the whole thing. His feeling is that we have no way of picking out the "deserving" panhandlers from the non-deserving panhandlers so he'll just give them a small amount of money, maybe a few dollars, and not worry about it. I tend to wonder if giving money to panhandlers encourages the wrong type of people to continue panhandling.
The panhandlers sometimes become more bold and instead of passively standing at an intersection, they'll directly approach and ask for money, like the lady who struck up a conversation in the cereal aisle while I was shopping one day. A brief question about whether a particular brand of cereal was any good became long litany of the troubles she was facing; legal troubles, the water being shut off, feeding her fourteen-year-old, her unemployed spouse. I offered her some information, directing her to food pantries that I knew of and free clinics for medical help which also offer social services, taking advantage of the water and electric company's charity care. Every piece of information I gave her was met with an excuse about why she "couldn't" go here or there.
Financially I wasn't in a position to help her. I didn't have $80 free to pay her water bill, or $100 to buy her groceries. I didn't even have cash in my purse at the time, because I almost always use my debit card and hardly ever have actual paper money on me. Sensing that I couldn't give her what she wanted or needed, she moved on. I finished my shopping and then spotted her, this time with her husband/boyfriend(?) near the checkout line. I paid for my things, and got $10 in cash from the cashier and caught her on my way out of the store. She seemed genuinely grateful and I left not knowing whether I had been gullible or kind....or both.
Having my kids with me when these things happen tends to make me be more generous and more cautious. Not wanting to make my children cynics, like myself, I try to go out of my way to be more generous. On the other hand, having them with me when someone approaches me directly also makes me very uncomfortable because I have no idea how erratic a panhandler might be, and what their response will be if I don't have money to give to them.
How do you handle panhandlers? Do you respond differently if you have children with you?