The Story: Cardboard signs could equal jail time
This may be surprising to some sheltered people out there, but that “homeless” person on the corner holding a sign, may not be homeless at all.
Several stories have been popping up over the past few weeks – and I have had my own experiences with this in the past few days.
Check out the stories and some videos:
The first story I ever heard about panhandler scams was when I was in middle school. I was visiting family in Dallas and on the news was a story about a particular panhandler who frequented an intersection that was familiar. This panhandler was always in a wheel chair on this street corner begging for money.
As a young person, I remember feeling sad and wondering why we couldn’t just roll down the window and give him some change.
The news story continued to show hidden camera footage of this same person getting out of the wheel chair, and getting into a car. The news station followed the car to the Oklahoma boarder to a casino where the panhandler apparently won big time after betting the money that caring, generous, hard working people gave him.
From that day on I refuse to give money.
It was reinforced when I was in high school and I visited my sister who was in college near Boston. We went into the city and used the T (the train), that had posters all over it of silhouettes of bodies made out of coins with the message that giving coins to the homeless is actually counter productive to helping them.
And again, in high school, I was in Nashville on a mission trip in July when a middle aged white woman wearing a sweater with the sleeves pulled down approached our group asking for food and money. We gave her food, but no money. Some of the sweet, younger girls in the group said that they wanted to do more and give her money because they felt bad. I explained the significance of the woman wearing long sleeves in the middle of a hot and humid summer day in Nashville. There was no Breaking Bad back them for me to reference as an explanation that this woman was a drug addict.
More recently, I used to keep water bottles and little packs of snacks in my car so that when I came across someone at an intersection like that, I could give them something. Until, a friend of mine told me that he watched someone do just what I did drive off, and the panhandler threw the considerate gift off the edge of the overpass where he was standing.
The other day, while I was filling up with gas, I was approached by a man saying he was in need of money. Having firmly established that I do not give money to people, and telling him the truth that I didn’t have any cash on me, I offered to fill up his tank. He said he took the bus. I offered to get him something to eat at the gas station. He asked me “can’t you just go the ATM?”
No joke, the guy asked me to go to the ATM and withdraw my money for him.
I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
What is a compassionate person to do?
The thing is, most people are good. Most people who have, want to help those who don’t. In fact, recent studies indicate that despite the dwindling of the middle class, the poor and the middle class give more to charities. The fact that panhandlers can make so much money off of us is overwhelmingly a good thing. It is evidence of our humanity to see another need and try to help.
But is giving cash really helping?
I once heard a person in the church say that they battled with this too – and finally decided just to give money whenever he could, praying in faith that God would help the individual spend it wisely.
That’s not a bad approach.
But I don’t think that it’s the right one.
Compassion is one of the most beautiful things we have. But it’s not compassionate to enable someone to harm themselves. It’s not compassionate to support addiction or to allow for a person capable of contributing to leech instead.
I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve come up with my approach – I encourage to find yours.
Here is how I behave compassionately to strangers and people in need:
- If I can use my funds to help them with a specific need, I will. I have bought homeless people breakfast before and I’ve paid for stranger’s tanks of gas to get them home. I’ve handed cashiers the remaining quarter or dollar for the person in line in front of me who was short on change. In those instances I give, and I give happily.
- I give money to organizations that work to truly help people in need. I will donate to organizations like the Salvation Army, Kiva (does really cool micro-lending) and to my church which is one of the area’s largest food bank distributors.
- When I can, I give time and other resources.
- And yes, I pray. I don’t only pray for the strangers who say they need my help. I pray for the opportunity to truly help them.