Sunday, February 17, 2008


Bill Wotring of Fullerton, Calif., wants to make it clear that his town does not have "a significant problem with beggars" asking for money. However, he has been struck by how increasingly often he has been asked for spare change by young kids both inside and outside of a restaurant he frequents that happens to be close to a community college.

When asked for money, Wotring usually responds by giving the requester a card with information about his community's 211 telephone service that directs callers to various social services. The 211 telephone-number network is an initiative of United Way and the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems to establish support numbers through the United States and Canada -- for further information visit or

Wotring gives out the cards, he says, because he "rationalizes that these agencies are better equipped to assist and not fund someone's drug or alcohol addiction or their possible irresponsibility."

He's increasingly concerned, he adds, about "why so many more young, college-aged kids are asking for money when they do not appear to be poor, homeless or anything else other than in immediate need of coffee at Starbucks."

He wonders if the actions of these kids reflect some change in values that makes it OK to panhandle even when, to all appearances, there is no immediate need.

But what's really eating him is what to do when he wants to help someone who does appear to be in need. If he hands over money, he worries, he may be funding a true need, but may equally likely be supporting an addiction or some irresponsible behavior.

"I may be biased," he admits, "having worked since before high school to prevent myself from going hungry."

All the same, he wants to know if his decision not to give out money is the right thing to do.

I don't know if Wotring's observation of young kids panhandling for money when they don't appear to need it reflects some shift in values. Based on my experience with college-age kids as a teacher and as a parent, I tend to doubt it. While many struggle to get on firm financial footing, it's highly unlikely that begging on the street would be their first solution to raising money, whether for a cup of coffee or for their next college-loan payment.

That raises a bigger issue, however. As I've said before, none of us can really know the true reason that someone asks us for money, nor can we know how he or she plans to use any money we may provide. We can't know, and we shouldn't expect to.

The right thing to do, when someone asks you for money, is to decide whether or not to give it, based on whatever criteria you may see fit: whether the person looks truly needy, when and where the approach is made, what your financial situation may be at the moment, whether the pitch sounds sincere, original or even amusing...all of these are legitimate considerations, if you choose.

You should not, however, have any expectation that you can control how that person spends whatever money you may give. Once you give a man your money, it's his money, and he can spend it any way he likes.

Not to give money is an entirely acceptable decision, ethically speaking -- asking you for money in no way creates an ethical obligation for you to give it. In Wotring's case, he has decided that handing out money is not the right answer for him, so his decision to direct people to agencies that can provide help is a good compromise solution.

Helping others in need is a good thing. How to do that without causing more harm than good is a challenge each of us must face, and different people can come up with different, equally justifiable solutions.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I am not going to be deep here, just a tip: Go to the nearby hamburger joint (the cheap 99 cents burger place) and buy a book of coupons there. Along with your self help information card, give this person a couple of those burger coupons. If your concern is the money for drugs issue, this solves it. You have added another step in controlling the donation ('once you give the money to the man, he can spend it any way...') to hopefully both side's satisfaction. No burgers at Starbucks but perfectly hot coffee at the burger joint!

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I thought your article this morning regarding panhandlers was extremely interesting and perceptive. I live in Newport Beach, Ca and we have noticed in the last few years a definite increase in homeless people. I frequent the Circle K on the corner of Balboa Blvd. and PCH every morning for coffee and a copy of the the OC Register. There is usually one panhandler standing outside the store asking for money. Some of these people really look to be down and out as evidenced by their torn, tattered and dirty clothes. Some of them at times look to be better than others due to cleaner clothes, a recent shave and a combed head of hair. But I have noticed one thing that all these people have in common which I term a "walk without purpose." When they walk they seem to have no destination in mind as at times they just make a 180 degree turn and start walking the other way. The walk is very slow with unsure steps and sometimes they just stop walking for a few minutes then resume their without purpose trek towards God only knows what down and out place they have chosen to stop. Most of the times I do not give any money because more than likely it would be used for booze and other non essential items. But at times depending on my mood, how they look and how they approach me, I relent and fork over some loose change. Anyway, just thought you might enjoy this e-mail as it is directly related to your article...............


Anonymous said...

I always give money to panhandlers. If they're old, disheveled and dirty, they're probably jobless and homeless and even if they need a drink or drugs, it's probably too late to save them. So why not allow them a few more hours of blissful escape from their wretched lives? I can afford it.

With young people I take a different tact. I always ask them if they're going to use it to buy drugs or alcohol and they always say no. Then I tell them, "The hell with you. You're young and have a long way to go, so why not enjoy yourselves? I didn't end up in the hospital with liver failure until I was in my 60s. You might make it that long too."

It's funny, but it almost always starts a discussion during which they want to know more about alcoholism and the hell I went through before finally deciding I couldn't escape its bounds on my own and really started taking AA seriously. AA saved my life.

I point out that the homeless people they see on the streets went the drug and alcohol route instead of pursuing their educations and none of them planned on ending up that way. But if they want to risk it, give it their best shot because there will always be soft touches like me around to give them handouts when they hit bottom.

I don't care if they buy alcohol or not. I used to hang out outside liquor stores when I was a teenager, trying to find someone who would buy beer for me and my friends. Alcohol later almost killed me, but right now I'm a retired attorney making $87,000 per year with an excellent health care plan.

At least we have a discussion and they're thinking.

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeffrey
Re: panhandlers:
I agree with you that not to give money is a perfectly acceptable decision. I refuse to give money away to a panhandler even when it makes my heart ache to say no.
Here is a possible solution. Give food when possible.
There was a fellow in Calgary who used to panhandle on the street in front of my church almost every day at about the same time. I would pack him a lunch, sandwiches, fruit, cookies, a drink, and other goodies, and drop it off to him several times a week when I was going by. He was too proud to take it from me so I used to place it under a pine tree and then he would come and pick it up. I never even spoke to him.
I have been known to escort panhandlers into stores and invite them to purchase foods up to a reasonable amount. Once, in a weak moment, I even agreed to purchase a pack of cigarettes for a lady. Sometimes the folks choose sandwiches and apples and sometimes they purchase Ding Dongs. Who am I to say what they should eat? It just feels better to me than saying “no”. It’s even fun to do this and to see their surprised and delighted reactions.
Where I live now, it sometimes happens that a panhandler approaches motorists at red lights… I try to keep a jar of imperishable snack foods in my car for these occasions.
Giving food isn’t always possible, but the important thing is to keep an open mind, and remember that it doesn’t always have to be a yes or no answer. Be creative!

Kind regards,

Lisa Marie Doig
Windsor, On.