Handling Panhandlers

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - December 19, 2007
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The man approached me as I walked from the parking lot at the Ward Stadium Theaters.

“Can you spare a little change, a dollar? So I can get some food?” he asked, looking very hungry indeed.

I smiled, shook my head and kept walking. And then the familiar little tug of war began again in my head. On the one hand, why not give him a little money? He only asked for a dollar. On the other hand, why should I? Who knows what he’ll use it for? Am I being cheap? Am I being smart? What’s the etiquette for dealing with the down and out on the streets?

The questions have taken on an urgency lately because panhandling is becoming ubiquitous in our Aloha State. The incident I described above was the third in a week. The first was outside a Safeway. I just happened to have some change in my hands, a fact probably not lost on the man who approached. I gave him the money.

The second was in the university area. The man rapped on my window as I sat in the car waiting for someone. This time I shook my head and declined. He left without incident. I felt mean and Grinchy, but relieved that he’d gone.

The third was the incident at Ward.

I have been accosted before, of course, a few times over the years. I’ve handled it differently at different times. I’ve given money, I’ve offered to buy food, I’ve ignored them, I’ve even apologized for saying no.

The hardest for me is when children are involved. I’ve had little kids ask me for money for food. The first time it happened I handed over cash. The next time I was more cautious - I told the child I’d buy her lunch at McDonald’s if she was hungry. She backed off quickly. Later, I saw her approach another person in the parking lot - a woman. The woman gave her money. The little girl gave the money to her mom (I think it was her mom) who was standing a few feet away.

Most of the time, though, the panhandler is a man, and I’m always a little nervous when they approach. If I turn him down, what will he do? I’ve been lucky. Usually there’s no fuss.

I suspect I’m not alone in my conflicted feelings about this, so I asked for a little guidance from two “experts.” One is Bob Marchant, executive director of the River of Life Mission. The other, HPD Capt. Frank Fujii. Both gave me the same advice - don’t give money.

Marchant is no stranger to the hungry and homeless. His River of Life Mission feeds thousands of people every year.

“I offer to take them to a restaurant. They say no, I want to eat at a certain place,” he says. “I just walk away.”

And he feels no guilt.

“I tell them I don’t give money out on the street.”

Capt. Fujii suggests an even more cautious approach.

“Don’t engage them at all,” he says. In other words, don’t talk to them; don’t offer to buy them food. Just keep on going. Fujii says the reason is simple, especially for women approached by men: “You don’t know their motivation.”

Fujii says if the person persists or gets ugly, keep walking and call 911 if you can.

Here’s my take on this. I, like many of you, do what I can to help people. I give to charities and volunteer where I’m needed. So when I refuse to give someone money on the street, I will not feel guilty, Grinchy, or mean. I will not be intimidated. Having compassion doesn’t mean being a soft touch. Like anything else in life, common sense applies, even during the “giving” season. Give to the charity of your choice, and have a merry and safe Christmas.

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