Saturday, December 13, 2008

Spare some change? Put it in the right hands

Spare some change? Put it in the right hands

by Anna Griffin, The Oregonian

Friday December 12, 2008, 9:44 PM

Police, social workers and anti-poverty activists disagree on a lot when it comes to the city's battle to end homelessness. But they form a hallelujah chorus on one matter:

Do not, do not, do not give to panhandlers.

At least, don't give them cash.

» Listen to Anna Griffin discuss panhandling at the Today in Oregon podcast.

This is the season when downtown Portland teems with commuters, Tuba Christmas-loving tourists and shoppers who may or may not have gotten lost on their way to Bridgeport Village. Like poor moths to an affluent flame, the increased population draws beggars to crowded corners near such shopping hot spots as Powell's, Macy's and Pioneer Place. Some of them are clever, such as the kid with the "Will work for verbal abuse" sign near Pioneer Courthouse Square. Some are heart-wrenching, such as the grandmotherly type spotted this week outside the Benson Hotel.

Please note, however: Many of them are not homeless. And most who are will not be using your hard-earned cash to get indoors.

"They're using it for alcohol and drugs," says Portland police Cmdr. Mike Reese, whose Central Precinct officers are quite familiar with most panhandlers. "I don't like to generalize, but ..."

It is in our nature here in Oregon to want to help. A charitable spirit, you might call it. Or maybe just liberal guilt.

We don't like to see people in need. We believe the world's problems really can be solved.

But the struggles that force people onto the streets -- poverty, addiction and mental illness -- aren't going to get fixed by a dime or a dollar tossed at somebody on a street corner.

The people who truly need our assistance are the ones who cannot muster the mental health or the energy to ask for cash, the ones who spend their days recoiling from passers-by, not soliciting them. Many panhandlers, police and social workers agree, approach collecting change as full-time work. They have regular spots and finely honed sales pitches.

That "Need money for food" sign? False advertising, given that there are several dozen agencies offering warm, free meals on a regular basis.

"There is no excuse for anyone to go hungry in this town," says Bill Miller, a Portland Rescue Mission spokesman. "Shelter is the real issue, and change can't buy that."

There are ways to help that go deeper than your own immediate emotional gratification.

Sisters of the Road, the Old Town cafeteria and community center, sells meal vouchers you can hand out instead of coins. Portland Rescue Mission workers recommend giving granola bars, preferably along with a copy of their free-on-the-Internet resource guide for people in need.

Or you might start collecting that spare change in a coffee can or a shoe box to donate to a nonprofit. Get the kids involved in decorating a charity box -- known as a Tzedakah box in Jewish homes, where they're common -- and you've done a good deed and taught the next generation a lesson about giving.

Here's something else you shouldn't do: Ignore panhandlers.

Oregonians are almost as conflict-averse as they are compassionate. Many of us don't like saying no, so we cross to the other side of the street or, at least, refuse eye contact.

But police say very few of the people you encounter downtown pose a danger. And anti-poverty advocates say treating homeless people like fellow human beings can help them find the self-esteem to start rebuilding their life.

So feel free to say a firm but polite "no." Then go home and, if you can afford it, find a way to really help.

-- Anna Griffin

1 comment:

arnie draiman said...

very nice article. giving cash is always an issue. you really need to be able to 'follow the money trail'...

you want to know that your sacred tzedakah shekels are being most efficiently and effectively.

arnie draman