Sunday, July 09, 2006

Handlin' the panhandlers--an ethical question...

What do you, my generous-minded and wise readers, do when someone comes up to you on the street and asks for money? I ask because I’ve noticed that my position has shifted as I’ve grown older. A few years ago, I was what could be called an “easy touch”. That is, I’d pile quarters, dimes, and nickels into the hand of any hard-luck-story spouting guy who crossed my path. It didn’t matter if they politely requested a dime or begged five dollars so that they could get gas for some fictional car so that their fictional daughter could get back to some fictional small town safely. I figured that, because I had money, it would be kind of me to share it with those who didn’t, even if they were obviously conning me. I have a nice apartment, a good job, and all the luxuries I desire, I told myself, I shouldn’t deign to judge people who lack those things.

But then I got sick of being lied to, and, of course, sick of giving away free money to strangers. So I revised my policy to the point where I would give a little bit of change to people who just came up and asked for it. The ones who told me their ridiculous hustler’s fables–which I had, by now, heard dozens of times–I would politely brush off. This strategy worked well for awhile, since I still got to feel like a good samaritan while, at the same time, keeping more of my coins for the soda machine at work. It also was a great step up in streetwisdom to no longer be swayed by the smooth-talking sorts with their fake charities and elaborate chiseling methods.

Now, however, I find myself refusing to dig into my pockets for anyone on the street. I don’t care about being a good samaritan anymore, I guess. I’ve decided that giving these people money does nothing to help them and, perhaps, even hurts them since the lure of passerby generosity can tempt them away from the social services, church shelters, and programs that could actually make a difference in their lives.

But what do you think? What do you do when someone on the street, bus, subway or wherever asks you for money?