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Panhandlers Beg the Question

The guy at the off-ramp. The teen at the gas station. The lady in front of the market. Their stories, no doubt, are as different as their cardboard signs — “Anything helps.” “God bless.” “I’d rather be working.” But there’s an unnerving sameness about their demeanor: downcast eyes, slack posture, and clothes that haven’t seen a spin cycle in weeks. Maybe months.

There are more panhandlers than ever before, and it’s no mystery why. The mystery, for me, is how to respond. Sometimes I offer coins and wonder what good my 63 cents could possibly do. Sometimes I ignore them and feel bad about it. Usually I just smile impotently and wonder, as I pass, if there isn’t some smarter way to help.

My grandma once took a homeless guy to Denny’s and bought him lunch. She drove him there and — gulp — stopped by an ATM on the way. Prudent? No. Constructive? Unequivocally. He got to order the hot meal of his choice and tell his story to a great listener over bottomless cups of coffee. (He had to listen to her stories, too, but fair’s fair.)

Not all of us have my grandmother’s time. Or her huevos. Isn’t there something we can do beyond flicking nickels at these folks, and short of asking them on dates?

I talked to a guy standing outside Trader Joe’s on De la Vina Street with a sign: “Thank you for all your help.” “It’s my preference to technically not ask for anything,” said the man, who wouldn’t give his name. He’s been, er, not-begging for seven months, trying to get out of debt. “Sometimes people give me food that doesn’t fit with my diet,” he said. “I’m vegetarian, on an all-raw diet.”

Only in Santa Barbara.

A few days later, a woman named Lonnie stood in his place with a sign that read, “Have seizures. Homeless and hungry.” She uses handouts to buy butane for the space heater in her van, and bread and cheese to eat. “A lot of people don’t realize,” she said, “that cheese will last quite a few days without going bad.”

Goleta mom Sheryl Stratman makes a habit of helping people on the streets. She stops to talk to them and find out what they need. Sometimes it’s a burger from Jack in the Box, sometimes it’s hair clips. She invited five homeless men to her home last Thanksgiving. In December, she spent an hour panhandling outside of Kmart just to see what it felt like. “One college girl gave me a dollar and everyone else ignored me,” she said. “It was horrible. I cried for the last half hour because I was so sad at how rejected and embarrassed I felt.”

Indeed, said Gary Linker, director of the New Beginnings Counseling Center, which works with people living in vehicles. “It’s really painful to be ignored. Almost every homeless person I’ve ever talked with appreciates when people acknowledge them,” he said, even if it’s just to look them in the eye and say, “I hope things get better for you.”

Another way to help someone in need is to call 211, the county’s human services hotline. “You could call and simply say, ‘I’m standing here with a homeless person and they’re saying they need help,'” said Mike Foley, director of Casa Esperanza Homeless Center. He advises against giving cash. “Eighty percent of people panhandling on the street are using at least part of that money for alcohol or drugs.”

I know this will tweak readers’ tempers, but I think it’s self-righteous to refuse someone money because of where they might spend it. If a fifth of Popov stands between a guy and a night of the shakes, who are we to deny it? Is generosity truly generous if it robs a down-and-outer of his only remaining freedom: that of choice?

But the advocates I spoke with convinced me of one thing: We should want more for these folks than a bottle of comfort. We should want a life of contentment. “Money is often just not good enough,” said Jon Lemmond, a pastor at Montecito Covenant Church and a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. “It doesn’t go far enough in addressing people’s needs.”

Lemmond is involved with the city’s new Alternative Giving campaign to discourage tourists and residents from giving money to panhandlers. Starting in April, many stores on State Street, along the waterfront, and on the Milpas corridor will provide donation boxes where shoppers can donate toward street outreach programs that connect homeless folks with job, shelter, and health resources. “It’s not about not giving,” he said. “It’s about giving in a more substantial way.”

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