The Hartford Courant this week noticed what most everyone else around here has– panhandlers are on nearly every corner of big intersections these days. Many carry the standard signs drawn on ripped cardboard “Homeless and Hungry.” Some wear masks, others don’t. Some make eye contact, others look down at their feet. They almost universally say “God Bless,” when you roll down your window and give them a dollar. I suspect that is more panhandler etiquette than religious belief.
How many of them have lost their jobs, and their homes due to COVID and the economic downturn? And how many of them are substance users? What are they doing with the money? Buying bread to feed their families or buying liquor or drugs and/or alcohol to fight off withdrawal sickness?
The article reports that several towns are asking people not to give panhandlers money for fear it will encourage them and increase the problem. Instead, they advocate donating money to local homeless shelters and other charities that service the homeless population.
I am one of those who gives panhandlers money. I donate to a local harm reduction charity too, but I know how much a smile, a look in the eye and a dollar or two goes for someone down on their luck or even someone in need of four dollars to get their next fix to hold the sickness at bay. A couple of dollars means nothing to me. Even though I have a daughter in college and another headed there, I work two jobs and make enough money that I can sleep at night. Between the floor of my car, the ashtray and the center console, I always have a few bills and a ton of change that I am not doing anything with. And if I have a single wrapped protein bar or an unopened bottle of water, I may hand them one of these, too.
I do have certain rules about which panhandlers I donate too. I admit I freely donate to people I know to be heroin users. These people I either know by sight as people I have seen on Park Street or who I judge by their gauntness. You give them a buck or two and they are gone, headed to Park Street to get their medicine. The ones I tend to avoid are the ones who are there everyday, who stay in one post and never seem to leave. You give them food and they say thank you and then they put the food into their backpack or shopping bag. I have given apples to heroin users and they have cored them before the light has changed. For heroin users with no teeth, I give them oranges and they have peeled and munched down on them before they have even remembered to say God bless. The ones who put the food in the shopping bag and don’t eat it right away I am skeptical of.
There is an old man with a white beard and a can who is a frequent panhandler at one of the major intersections. I stopped giving money once I realized I never saw him on the rainy days, that he kept regular hours and that he never seemed to eat the food people gave him. I began to suspect he was a professor conducting research on panhandling. I’m probably wrong about that and he may in fact have a chilling life story. Another woman I stopped giving to, is on the same corner from morning to night, and every time I drive by she is putting the food someone has given her into a shopping bag. I don’t know if she is putting the food away to save for her family or to hide from people’s view who may be less inclined to give if they see her haul. Maybe she has kids at home, but I don’t think so. I wish I did know her story, and writing about her now makes me feel like a bad person for judging her. If I had to make up a story for her, I would say she has an abusive boyfriend/pimp who puts her on the street not for sex, but to collect change which she has to give to him at night in place of a mattress to sleep on. No easy life that. When I do give to her, I don’t see relief or happiness on her face, just pain. One day I ought to get out and give her ten dollars in return for hearing her story of how she came to be on that corner every day.
Sometimes I give heroin users five dollars and ask them to tell me about their lives. I consider it fair value as what I learn is more than I might learn from renting a movie. I think I favor giving my change to heroin users because I know how happy or relieved the money makes them feel, knowing that they can stop worrying if even for a few moments about how they are going to get their next fix. They remind me of the myth of Sisyphus, where Sisyphus is condemned to forever push a rock up a hill and when he gets to the top, it rolls back down and he has to roll it back up the hill. I feel if I give them a dollar or two, it’s like I am offering them a chair to sit in and a glass of lemonade to sip for a moment before they resume their relentless struggle.
I know some say I am enabling them. I don’t think that my dollar is the difference between their decision to quit using or continue. Addiction doesn’t work like that. I think my human interaction is more important. I’d like to think that it tells them that the world is not all against them, people do not look down on them, but view them as fellow journeyers on this planet, and that kindness still exists in a world that has treated them roughly.
Some of my fellow EMS workers will give to panhandlers, but only food. Food is appreciated, surely. But I bought a large pizza once for a group of users once and bought turkey dinner another time to others. While the gestures were appreciated, the food did not fare well for their stomachs that were not conditioned to that type of greasy food in such quantities.
I always remember the time I asked one user who was standing in front of the Spanish Market if she wanted two dollars or for me to buy her anything she wanted for lunch. “Two dollars,” she said without hesitation. I gave her the two dollars, then went inside and in addition to my order of roast pork, yucca, rice and tostones, I asked for an alcapurria (a fritter made of plantain) and a champagne cola for my friend.
Two dollars has more value in a homeless heroin user’s world than food. The two dollars ends the body aching, the nausea, the stomach upset. It brings peace, forgetting, even if only temporary of their painful trail and current place.
And I have to tell you. If I can bring them a little bit of happiness, it makes me feel good too. So there is some selfishness there. I feel like Bill Gates. Let’s give some money away. I drive around the city and in twenty minutes I am ten dollars lighter, but I have made five people happy and I feel good myself. Everyone may have their vices. Giving spare change to others is better than me spending it at the bar myself. I go home at night to my warm house, kiss my kids, fill my belly with food and sleep soundly next to my wife.
Here’s what the Pope has to say about giving money to panhandlers:
Interviewer: Many people wonder if it is right to give alms to people who ask for help on the street; what would you reply?
Pope Francis: “There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine. …Help is always right. Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”
Help is always right.
And it turns out it is good for me too.
Proverbs 11:24-25 “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”
The Psalms (112.5), “Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.”
I feel the same about politics and government. I may be one of the few, but I am always willing to pay higher taxes if the money is going to help others. I don’t like it when government cuts taxes for the right and the programs for the poor are slashed, jobs cut and average American thrown out on the street, while the rich get richer. I feel happier when I sense the world has less suffering in it.
The term panhandling comes from people holding out tin pans asking for money. Alternatively, they are asking for money to buy bread, which is also known as pan. Breaking bread with someone else is a Christian term, meaning to have a meal together, to share common humanity.
Help is always right.