Not exactly sure where this should go… moderators feel free to move it somewhere else if appropriate.
I work in the downtown area of a large West Coast US city, and encounter panhandlers of one kind or another on a daily basis. Usually it’s the same faces everyday; sometimes it’s teenagers, but usually it’s middle aged men. I’m not talking about street vendors such as musicians here, who one can argue perform some greater societal good, but people who appear to be able-bodied yet ask for money from anyone who happen to walk by. While some are probably just down on their luck, others seem to get by on what they can collect from strangers and panhandling becomes a way of life for them.
The city government seems pretty oblivious to these people until they start to get aggressive. As long as they don’t touch or harass anyone the police seem unable or unwilling to deal with them. This happens to be a very liberal city politically and the mild weather apparently makes it somewhat bearable for people who are forced to live on the street. Sometimes they sit on the corner of busy intersections, with a cardboard sign, hoping someone hands them some money. Usually they walk around the downtown area approaching people in areas where we tend to congregate, such as at a bus stop.
Let’s ignore, for the moment, the mentally ill who have no idea what is going on and can be seen talking to themselves or imaginary people. These poor souls rarely interact with the public directly and can be avoided easily. But panhandlers are different. They can be passive or aggressive, and I have seen two of them, working as a team, corner a person in an attempt to get them to fork over 50 cents. As far as what they do with the money they collect I can’t say. Whether they choose to buy cigarettes, drugs or alcohol with their money seems to me to be their business. Some people hand them McDonald’s gift certificates in hopes of influencing their purchase habits.
By and large I tend to ignore these hapless folks, not because I am cheap, but because I don’t want to encourage them. Of course they don’t know I am trying to teach them a lesson since they know that only a small percentage of people will hand them money. Apparently enough people give them enough money to make it worth their while or presumably they wouldn’t be there, although they may not have too many options. My guess is that these are mainly street people, without a fixed address, and would have trouble getting on welfare assistance. I may be naïve about that of course.
So the question is, should I give them money or not? Do radom acts of charity help society in general or just encourage people to avoid finding work? I can certainly afford to give a few dollars away each day, I happen to be blessed with a good paying job.
My NOT giving them money doesn’t teach them a lesson since they show up on the street everyday whether I give them anything or not. I could give money to some civic or quasi-religious organization that feeds the poor etc., but there is always overhead involved and I never really know where the money goes. At least by giving it directly to someone on the street I know it’s going to help someone. Or should I continue to ignore these people, which seems kind of heartless, in hopes they will all get jobs someday.