The other night, my partner and I were accosted in a parking lot by a young woman who gave a good song and dance about how she and her female cousin were out of gas and needed to get back to Vacaville (a two-hour drive away). Could we spare anything? Anything at all would help. She gave just enough details to make the story plausible, including that their vehicle, a Silverado, was borrowed from her aunt, and that her aunt had given them $20 for gas but it wasn’t enough, etc. etc. etc. Normally I don’t give money to panhandlers, but I gave her what I had, and so did my partner, though my instincts were telling me there was something fishy about her story.
As soon as she had shaken us down for what she could, this accomplished con artist and her male companion, who had been careful to remain out of sight until then, climbed into a white, late-model Toyota and drove away. So, no female cousin, no Silverado, no desperate need for gas.
It bothered me that I had let myself be taken advantage of; clearly she was lying and needed the money for something she was sure others wouldn’t approve of. Drugs, alcohol, a gambling debt—who knows? The point is that she lied to get money for nothing; that she took advantage of good-hearted people; that she felt it was all right to do so.
This is why I don’t like to give to panhandlers no matter how pitiful their story scrawled on a piece of cardboard. My kind heart would love to give what I have; my cooler, more rational head knows that many of the people I see panhandling are not truly in need, or need the money for lifestyles that I prefer not to support. I have no problem with people destroying their lives with drugs or alcohol or whatever—it’s a waste of their lives, but it is their choice to make and none of my business as long as they don’t harm others—but I don’t want to fund those choices.
In addition, I never know whether someone really needs the money for what I would be willing to help with, such as food and shelter. If I could be sure they were going to use the money for those needs, I would be happy to help. But I don’t know. Here are some personal experiences that have taught me to be a little less trusting and a little more cautious:
- When I was a child, the father of a family we knew, a man who had a large income, decided to dump it all—wife, son, daughter, job, home, and all—and go live under a bridge. (Literally.) He didn’t have any alcohol or mental problems that I know of; my mother later told me that he just got tired of it all. That was a choice he made. Should we as a society have then supported him?
- I read an article in the late 1980s that said a good panhandling position in Santa Cruz could net a person $40,000 free and clear. That’s $40,000 tax-free. $40,000 that they could keep to themselves and spend as they like, not kicking any back into the public good. In the late 1980s, that was a very good income.
- My brother once had a neighbor who owned his house but got his wherewithal by panhandling at busy intersections. He carried home large, heavy athletic bags filled with money.
- A neighbor of mine who has lived in the same house for years often panhandles at a busy intersection nearby. I don’t know whether he owns his house, but I doubt he is in desperate straits.
- And we’ve seen panhandlers trying to hide the fact that they are talking on their smartphones.
Should we as a society take care of those who cannot take care of themselves—the temporarily or permanently disabled, the elderly who have been productive their entire lives, and now cannot afford the basics of life? Yes.
Should we take care of those who are temporarily down on their luck? Yes, for a year or two or even three. And we should do what we can to help such people find jobs.
But should we support people who are capable of working but choose not to, finding that the public largess is just fine for them? No. And should we give money to panhandlers? No.
Many are looking for something for nothing, and are taking advantage of kind-hearted people like me. Most people don’t want to be rude or seem to be hard-hearted, so they give to panhandlers, thereby helping to perpetuate the problem. So I choose not to give to panhandlers. Instead, I give more wisely (most of the time, anyway; clearly I was not wise in that recent parking lot). For example, Raley’s, a local grocery store, collects cash donations to food for families. 100% of the donated funds go to food; Raley’s absorbs all costs of administering the funds they collect. I am sure it is a good tax write-off, but they don’t have to do it, and it goes through reputable distribution centers. And I give to other reputable charities as well.
So the next time you are tempted to hand a few coins to a panhandler, think again. Are you giving because you think you are making a positive difference in that person’s life, or because you can’t say no? If the latter, there are many fine charities that you can donate to. That way you can be assured that the money is doing some modicum of good. But check them out first; there are many disreputable charities that, like a corporate kind of panhandler, have the sole purpose of separating you from your money without doing anything good with it.