The word “panhandlers” as applied to people asking for charity or handouts is synonymous with “begging.” In many parts of the world, there are ancient traditions among certain religious groups that include “begging for alms.” Here in the United States, the word is more often associated with someone looking kind of ragged, standing by a stop light or sitting on a sidewalk holding a handwritten cardboard sign saying something like, “Homeless and Hungry. Will Work for Money. Please Help. God Bless.”
Everyone knows what guilt is. The feeling of self-recrimination that comes with either doing something we later feel we should not have or not doing something we later regret not having done. Most people would like to avoid both types as often as possible. This article proposes that you can reduce feelings of guilt by having a plan, based on thinking things through for yourself, and acting accordingly. Although pan handlers can make this very difficult, clear thinking and a plan you believe is right, will go a long way toward leaving you feeling OK about yourself – no matter what your response to the pan handler is.
There are as many ways to respond (or not) to these folks as there are people in the world, but the most typical behaviors can be classified into four general categories. Giving some thought to which one best describes you might be a useful exercise in self-reflection for each of us as the ‘Season of Giving” is upon us. Few people enjoy feeling guilty, so the goal is to manage these approaches, one way or the other, so that we come out of it without feeling guilty.
Of course, many people give charitably to organizations feeling, understandably, that these organizations can be entrusted to distribute donations to people in need in a way that is professionally considered and decided. But, even so, we are faced with more personal appeals for help – Often as our cars are waiting at stoplights.
Thinking it through and deciding what approach we feel makes the most sense for us, will make both the decision and the internal aftermath of that decision (the possible guilt) much easier to deal with.
The first and possibly most frequently observed reaction is for the driver of the car who happens to get stopped at the light immediately next to the person avoids making eye contact and looks the other way. The light turns green and the driver pulls away. The panhandler only existed enough to cause the driver to deliberately ignore him/her.
This choice is most usually justified by the belief that everyone who wants to work can find work, that people who really need help can access it through more organized channels and/or that panhandlers are essentially shiftless, lazy alcoholics or substance abusers who will spend anything they are given feeding their bad habits. These presumptions may or may not be correct in each and every situation but it negates the need to consider each individual incident of being asked.
The second is the response of handing such people supermarket gift certificates and the like. Some people in this group actually hand panhandlers a sandwich or candy bar. As a rule, they do not give them money, but something they can either consume or exchange for food.
This alternative is likely guided by the sense that people asking for help on the streets DO need something, but to be sure that they use the help for something nourishing, they are not given cash – which they might then abuse as in #1. I have observed many instances of panhandlers reacting with clear displeasure to such ‘donations.’ On the one hand, cash gives anyone the greatest degree of discretion in determining how to best address their own needs and priorities. On the other, many people are moved to help but do not want to play a role in assisting another person to destroy themselves.
A variation of this response involves providing the panhandler with information about a local service center where they can get some of the help they are saying that they need.
The third and perhaps least common response, is to offer the person some work in exchange for pay or food. Understandably less common, this would involve becoming involved with the panhandler past the 45 seconds of red light.
Most people who offer this to panhandlers whose signs indicate that willingness; do so expecting with some certainty that their offer will be declined. They can then drive away feeling that they made a good faith offer to help but that the panhandler was not willing to accept work for pay as an acceptable form of help – even if their sign specifically said otherwise.
The fourth is to keep a supply of dollar bills (or change) in the car and, special circumstances excepted, giving each panhandler a little money. This may be less common that the first two alternatives but clearly does happen. Like #2, this option allows the giver to feel that they have responded to a human being and a human need without judgment.
The person who gives money does so not knowing what the panhandler will use it for – and to this giver, that is less important than the fact that they have responded, personally and concretely to an openly expressed need of another person. This is the response probably closest to the ideal of ‘charity’ as it is generally understood. There is no judgment, only giving.
The situations are not always clear and straight forward. There are couples and women with children sitting on the curbs looking wan and needy. There are panhandlers offering some kind of ‘entertainment’ in exchange for a handout. One man I saw recently held a sign that said, simply, “Good Jokes, Only $1. Each!” Some stand with guitars and many of them smile at everyone who drives by engendering feelings of guilt in those who do not respond.
How we respond depends a lot on our view of humanity, our feelings of responsibility for other people and our levels of trust. It also depends, of course, on our own resources and assets available to give. The more clear we can be about how we want to deal with these situations and why, the less guilty we are apt to feel afterward.
It is not that there is one right way and that there are many wrong ways. The point is that the ‘right’ way is not the same way for everyone. Consider your options and make a decision. Some people choose to adopt more than one way depending on certain variables they feel are important. Are there children there? Does the person really ‘look’ needy? Is the panhandler friendly or aggressive?
In these difficult economic times, there seem to be ever-increasing numbers of people of the streets and at stop lights asking for some help. Are there more drunks or is there more need? Is it some of both? What response will allow us to feel that we have done the ‘right’ thing?
The answers to these questions can only be known to ourselves, but behaving in a way that is true to our own conviction is probably of the essence. Whatever it is we do automatically is possibly worth another thought. We do not want to feel guilty about whatever decision we make. Being true to ourselves and our own values is probably of the essence. Moreover, once a decision is made, it is not set in concrete. As a bumper sticker I once saw and like to make reference to said, “If you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one?”