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Panhandlers: When do you trust them?

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POSTED May 22, 2010 2:18 a.m.
Off and on for the past few weeks two different couples have taken a position at the stop sign where Hulsey Drive meets Commerce Drive by In-N-Out Burger. I’d come across them while making my daily Jamba Juice run

They sat there on the grass, knees tucked up, heads bowed, and holding a sign asking for help with the prerequisite “God bless.”

The first time I was in a bit of a hurry but had a tinge of guilt as I passed them. The next day they were there again. The passenger in the car handed them a greenback and I was about to do the same but then two vehicles got behind me.

My attitude changed on the third day. They were there again. I now thought they were gaming people. Same place, virtually the same time each day. They were there the next day and the day after that before they moved on to be replaced by yet another couple.

I honestly don’t know their stories. But something bugged me about the way they were panhandling.

I’m not exactly a soft touch but I will often give beggars money. It doesn’t make me feel good as much as I have empathy for them. And to be honest, I will occasionally give someone a $10 or $20 bill if their story sounds plausible and it “looks right.”

That is where the rub comes in. It’s not that I’m worried about being a sap, an easy mark, or gullible, I just don’t like the idea that someone who may have other options resorts to begging. I understand dignity and character can go out the window mighty quick when you’re penniless and hungry.

It’s just that in the past I’ve been taken in by two panhandlers.

One was receiving SSI and living with a relative. He was panhandling so he could buy electronic equipment that he placed on layaway at a Manteca store. Not that I’ve ever been destitute but I was helping this guy with a buck or two every once in awhile during a period where I had some challenging financial times. Imagine my reaction when being told - and later confirming - that he was panhandling to buy an MP3 player and other stuff.

The other guy was politely hitting people up at the Chevron station at Spreckels and Yosemite avenues. I resisted helping him until one time he had gone inside the store after receiving money and bought food.

I got into the habit of giving him my spare change. Then a few weeks later when police cleared out a homeless encampment near the base of the Spreckels Park sign along Highway 99, they had city crews tear down his makeshift shelter. In it were numerous empty bottles of alcohol and some partially consumed. When they rousted him he was intoxicated.

My desire to help people “in need” who partake in vices was tempered a long time ago. There was a convenience store I frequented near where I used to work in Roseville. This one particular woman would come in on an almost daily basis and buy bread and milk with food stamps. Then she’d turn around and use change and buy lottery tickets.

Some of my friends thought I was being too judgmental and “that the poor so be entitled to pleasures as well.”

Whoa. If they are receiving food stamps or any type of public assistance designed for those down on their luck, there objective should be getting back on their feet and covering the basics and not buying booze, smokes or lottery tickets even if it is with what little money they have that isn’t coming from the rest of us.

Someone panhandling doing the same thing is breaking an even more sacred trust. In the case of a recipient of government aid, I have no choice but to pay the bill. But when someone begs for money for help with basic survival - food or shelter - they are breaking faith when they use it for something entirely different.

Still, if I can help someone who needs help then I should.

Such an approach requires you to pick and chose. In the case of the couples I guess it was the fact they wouldn’t look me in the eye. I understand embarrassment and shame but I also am well aware that people can get an act down to an art.

It’s a tough call.
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