This is the part of the calendar – Christmas and the new year’s start – when people try to become better versions of themselves. So what does the better version of yourself do when you pass a person on the street holding a “Hungry and homeless” sign?
There’s not always an easy answer. Begging should not be encouraged. Some panhandlers could find gainful employment if they tried, and some will spend your spare change on booze or drugs. But what about those who wouldn’t? To dismiss every needy person as undeserving of help – that’s a moral shortcut. Sometimes people are down on their luck, or they’re mentally unhealthy, or, for whatever reason, they are suffering from their mistakes more than we are for ours. Many homeless people are veterans.
You can’t know who is whom when waiting at a traffic light. Do you withhold from five who need your help to avoid giving to five you shouldn’t help? OK, what if the ratio is 3:7? Is our better version a cheerful giver, or too smart to be suckered? And didn’t Jesus say something about “the least of these”?
The ideal solution is to give food, but sometimes time does not allow that choice. Besides, homeless people need money, too.
These encounters are becoming more common in central Arkansas. As I traveled from one establishment to another in Little Rock a few weeks ago, someone was holding a sign at the end of every interstate entrance and exit ramp I passed.
Part of the reason this is happening is because the courts say it can. Earlier this year, the state Legislature banned begging on public or private property in a harassing or threatening manner and in a way that could create a traffic hazard. The move came after an earlier law had been declared unconstitutional on free speech grounds. But panhandlers along with the American Civil Liberties Union sued over the new law, saying it still banned protected speech – that under the Constitution, asking for money is the same as asking for a vote. A district judge has issued a preliminary injunction against enforcing the law. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals next will rule on the case.
Candidly, I’ve chosen to give in some circumstances.
In one case, I gave some oranges and money to an older lady and her young adult son who were sitting inside the breezeway at the Benton Walmart. I’d once assisted the lady after watching her pick through the trash at a car wash, so I knew her poverty was genuine. As I started to leave the parking lot, I saw the son walking toward an adjacent convenience store and became suspicious enough to stop inside. Sure enough, he’d bought a lottery ticket. With my daughter in tow, I challenged him on how he’d spent the money I’d given him. He told me he was hoping to win enough to rent a hotel room for the night. “It’s happened before,” he said.
So I guess that would be a strike against giving money to folks like that. Or would it?
I had another experience a few weeks earlier as I parked at a grocery store. A man was sitting in a wheelchair holding a sign with his back to me. Days earlier, I’d given money to someone at an intersection, and the way he’d comfortably accepted it left me feeling ripped off. I was not in a cheerful giving mood.
As I approached the man, his back still to me, the thought occurred that a wheelchair would be a great prop. I thought of the movie “Bob Roberts,” where a Senate candidate fakes a crippling assassination and then wins the election on sympathy, but is later seen tapping his toes while playing the guitar. I decided I would take a good look at this dude. He’d better not be tapping his toes. And when I came around to his front and looked down to see his legs … I saw that he didn’t have any.
Until the courts say otherwise, streetside panhandlers can ask for money whether they are con men, addicts, or merely desperate and needy. So it will be up to each of us to decide which kind of the least of these they are, or if it matters, and to determine how we should respond as we seek to become better versions of ourselves.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.