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Walking along Franklin Street during a recent beautiful weekday lunch hour, I was approached by a scruffy-looking but polite man. "Excuse me, sir," he said, just a little too loudly. "Hello, sir."
Before I could really return his greeting, he continued: "Sir, I haven't had anything to eat and I'm hungry. Could you spare some money to help me out?"
"Sorry, I really can't," I said, trying to let him down as gently as possible.
He eyed me dubiously, and then glanced down at my pockets. "You don't have any change?"
"Sorry," I repeated.
He looked a little disturbed, and moved on. I continued my walk, eventually stopping by a bookstore where I ordered the book I'd set out to get. The cost? $24.
All the way back to my office, I kicked around what had just happened. I'd passed up the chance to give a couple of bucks to a man who'd asked me for it, then walked on and spent 10 times as much on a book I wanted to read.
This week, the Public Safety Committee of Richmond City Council will discuss a new regulation aimed at curbing panhandling. There's also talk of making panhandlers buy a $25 permit from the city.
I thought back to an encounter I had on Main Street some years ago. A man approached me, looking very down on his luck, and asked, "Got any money?" In response, I walked with him over to the Bill's Barbeque that was then on Seventh Street and bought him a sandwich. As he took it and wandered off, he said, "Got any money?"
So where does that leave me? Where does that leave all of us, as we drive by the man on the corner of Monument and Thompson every morning, or the men and women at several other intersections around town, holding signs that say, "Homeless. Please help"? I have been among the motorists who sit, stopped at the light, studiously avoiding making eye contact with the sign-holder. I've also rolled down the window once or twice and offered a little cash.
I asked a friend, a compassionate guy and a social worker who's worked with Richmond's homeless population for the last eight years, for advice. "Never give a panhandler money," he said. "Richmond is ahead of most cities in that it has more than enough resources for free meals and everyone living on the streets knows where to go."
He went on to point out that when someone asks for money on the street, usually the person's either looking to spend it on something other than food or just didn't like the food that was available through various social service agencies.
Part of me really liked my friend's response, because it allows me to say no with a clear conscience. But part of me wonders if his response lets me off too easily. Why am I looking for a way to say no? Can I look another human being in the eye, turn down his request for money and feel right about it -- especially when that person is obviously less well-off financially than I am? I'm not wealthy, by middle-class American standards, but I can certainly spare a couple of bucks now and then.
The argument "He's probably going to buy alcohol with it anyway" strikes me as maybe a bit condescending. It seems better to ask, "Why do I give?" If my motives for giving are honest if I choose to give in an attempt to be helpful, or to make the world a little bit better, or for reasons related to my faith is it really my place to insist on how a needy person spends his newfound money? But then how do I resolve the tension between setting myself up as a moral judge and being irresponsible?
It's much simpler to support organizations and institutions that reach out to the poor. That's absolutely necessary and helpful, too but from a distance. The issue can get a little more personal on Franklin Street.
What will I do the next time I'm strolling in town and I'm approached by someone with a sad story and an empty wallet? I honestly don't know. I hope I'll do what seems best at the moment, and not make any snap judgments. I hope I'll respond graciously, regardless of what I decide to do. And I'm not sure I'll buy a book. STom Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education and a freelance writer.
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