Should you or should you not give to panhandlers? It would be nice if the answer were clear-cut. But, like most important issues, there are nuances. Extenuating circumstances. Gray areas.
Maybe it comes down to whether you lead with your head or your heart. Sometimes, your rational side might overrule the emotion generated by a person asking for your spare change. But other times, an appeal may just seem so strong that you set aside any objections served up by reasoning.
These dual factors influence how we examine two essays that address the panhandling problem. One, by Executive Director Douglas W. Denton, comes from the head: Can you believe people who hit you up for money? Can they be helped? A counterpoint from Scott Burns, a columnist and Homeward Bound board member, looks at another side of the coin – when should emotion take over and the wallet opened? With their permission, we present the text of both.
Will you know the Christ when you meet him? Will you kill the Buddha when he appears?
Doug Denton: Don’t confuse panhandlers with everyday homeless
At Homeward Bound Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to treating substance use and mental illness, we have worked with people known as panhandlers as well as those who are homeless. We have found that panhandlers are not the people we traditionally think of as homeless.
These panhandlers often do not qualify for assistance programs. They are usually not the seriously mentally ill, who would be unable to function enough to panhandle. Those who are seriously mentally ill qualify for benefits such as Social Security disability, mental health services and housing because of the severity of their diagnoses.
Dallas City Council member Rick Callahan, who urged the city to crack down on panhandlers, actually points in the right direction.
The people I know as “professional panhandlers” have mild personality and emotional disorders that cause them to be ill-suited for normal employment and family life. Throw in crack cocaine addiction, alcoholism and the scourge of cheap heroin that is flooding our streets right now, and you have a volatile mix.
Although Dallas has an admirable plan to shelter the homeless, most of the people we are talking about don’t belong in homeless shelters. They work parking lots, grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores — and street corners like the one at Forest Lane and Central Expressway — bringing in as much as several hundred dollars a day.
Many street corners where we see people asking for a handout are controlled by organized activity forcing panhandlers to pay rent for the corner. If they’re not pitiful enough to bring in money, they are replaced. The money they collect goes to crack cocaine and that rent. Have you ever tried to give one of those guys a job? When they can make $100 to $300 a day, why would they mow your yard?
So what should be done?
The city of Dallas is committed to ending homelessness. Its investment has reaped a significant return in reducing the number of people living on the streets, saving many families from hardship and desolation. Spending money on services to address panhandlers’ needs is on target.
Leaders in the homeless services community call for aggressive outreach toward people begging on the streets. Downtown Dallas Inc. funds the Downtown Safety Patrol that offers referrals and guidance to persons in need — a very productive service.
I agree that there are no simple solutions to a population with thinking patterns distorted by addiction, alcoholism and personal trauma, all mixed into a stew that has become sad, angry, bitter and poisonous. We must recognize, however, that it’s harder to provide help when funding initiatives are reduced or cut altogether. (For example, the city dropped funding for substance abuse treatment about 10 years ago.)
What about outreach? Absolutely. We also need comprehensive, long-term drug treatment for many and re-entry programs for people leaving jails and prisons — all connecting to jobs. Safe housing is another need. But the city long ago restricted state-funded residential re-entry facilities so severely that none has been established in the city limits since the 1980s, giving rise to a spate of boarding homes that the city is now cracking down on because of inhuman conditions arising from overwhelming need and few community resources.
People can and do get better. They overcome addictions and learn new ways of living. We have seen this 100,000 times over at Homeward Bound. We see them when they are tired of living the street life and their spirits are broken. We see them recover and reunite with their families. We have seen them go from homeless to homeowners, focusing their lives on helping others.
There is hope, but only if we keep up the conversation and keep working on this stubborn and complex problem.
Doug Denton is executive director of Homeward Bound Inc., a Dallas nonprofit drug treatment facility. Reach him at email@example.com.
This essay first appeared in The Dallas Morning News Viewpoints section on Nov. 21, 2014.
A giving lesson from Charlie Mahoney
By Scott Burns
Charlie Mahoney was not a handsome man. At 60, he was short, bald, stooped and grizzled.
The stoop came from back injuries as a jockey. A U-shaped scar on his scalp was further evidence of that career. His appearance wasn’t improved by another career as a flyweight boxer. His ears wiggled from smashed cartilage. The crushed bridge of his nose made his nostrils unnaturally wide.
He was my grandfather, maternal side.
I didn’t see much of him when I was a kid. He only showed up when he was sober. That had gone on for years. Long enough that nuns raised my mother. When I did see him, he was scary. He began most conversations with, “Put your dukes up!”
He was not your sweet, role model granddad kind of guy.
But I did learn from him. One day, when he was around and it was my birthday, he took me to Quackenbush’s, the big department store in downtown Paterson, N.J. It had elevators that swooshed from floor to floor, deftly guided by an elevator attendant. It also had huge doors with big, shiny brass levers. The whole place smelled new. Charlie bought me a package of Fruit of the Loom briefs because I needed new underwear. I think I was 11.
We didn’t leave by the revolving doors at the front of the store. Instead, we started to leave by a side door. But a grimy, tattered man stopped us. With his arm holding the door open, he stood in our way.
“Can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee?” he asked. (Yes, this was a long time ago. When I was a kid, my measuring standard was Cokes. They were still a nickel each.)
Charlie fished in his vest pocket and gave the man two quarters.
“Thank you!” The man beamed, then shuffled off. It was more than he had hoped.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Because he didn’t want a cup of coffee.”
“Then what did he want?”
“He wanted a drink.”
“So why did you do it?” I asked again.
“Because it will get him through the day,” Charlie said.
After that, he explained that there were different kinds of drunks in the world. Some were like him. He drank whiskey, most of the time. Sometimes boilermakers, a shot of whiskey dropped in a beer. He’d still get day work, he said, thanks to the Erie Lackawanna Railroad or some other place that needed men who could shovel.
But there were other drunks. They were down on their luck. They were pretty far gone. They couldn’t work anymore. Fifty cents, he said, was enough to buy a small bottle of Sneaky Pete. That’s what he called sweet port wine. It’s cheap. It comes in a variety of sizes convenient for the pocket. It has sugar for nourishment. And it has enough alcohol to get by.
You could hope that the guy would go to White Castle and get some burgers, Charlie said, but you could be confident that he would buy Sneaky Pete. It would do the trick. It would get the guy through the day.
I understood the lesson he was teaching. Today, some might consider me a soft touch. If someone asks for money, I tend to give it. I know the money won’t promote world peace or eradicate poverty. It won’t help more people read and go to college. And it won’t improve inner-city education, cure cancer or bring the lost closer to God.
But it will get them through the day. That has to count for something.
When I talk about this, some people look at me funny.
“It’s wasted,” they say.
“It won’t do any good,” they say.
“You’re not solving the problem,” they say.
I want to do a lot of different things when I hear that. Like telling them exactly where they can put their righteousness. Or maybe punch them in the face, just like Charlie would have done.
Why don’t they know that getting things fixed is all about tomorrow?
Until then, lots of people just need to get through today.
Scott Burns is a syndicated columnist and a principal of the Plano-based investment firm AssetBuilder Inc. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Scott Burns on Twitter at @assetbuilder.
We read Scott Burns’ syndicated column in The Dallas Morning News on Dec. 21, 2014.
Taken from the SCOTT BURNS column by Scott Burns © Dist. By UNIVERSAL UCLICK. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.