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Should we fork over cash to the "homeless"?

For me, it's the ones with the dogs.

I might roll down my window at a stoplight for a guy in a wheelchair, or someone with a witty sign about his naked need for beer like we're in on the joke together, or just hungry eyes looking at me through the windshield. But a homeless guy with a dog always gets me reaching for my wallet.

So what exactly am I contributing to?

A provocative story this week by Times reporter Lane DeGregory explored a more cynical side of some who panhandle our streets advertising themselves as disabled or veterans or homeless, the truth apparently being flexible. Some spoke of working shifts, of creating different signs for different audiences, of regularly making enough to stay in a motel — all of which could make a person who's usually ready to hand over a few bills think twice.

A lot of us already do. Panhandlers said drivers in Lexuses and Beemers don't give like people in sorrier cars, maybe because having your own life even slightly closer to the edge makes you more willing to help.

So it turns out the real world can be a dirty one, and every homeless person is not some down-on-his-luck hobo (remember hobos?). They can have arrest records, substance abuse problems and mental health issues, and, yes, they can spend your street corner singles on beer or something less legal.

As a lot of us might if we slept nights on concrete and endured that kind of life. People "self-medicate," says Lesa Weikel of Hillsborough's Homeless Coalition.

So if you are so inclined, should you give? "It comes down to a personal decision," Weikel says.

Interestingly, some people who work daily in the business of feeding and housing the homeless told me no, they personally do not hand out cash, preferring to give to agencies with homeless programs. Give food if you want to give on the street, they said. Gift cards, even.

Tim Marks, chief operating officer of Metropolitan Ministries, says he's offered food to people who don't want it, though plenty do. Some will take advantage of a good heart, but some are genuinely hurting. His agency, by the way, once had one of the best and most basic pleas for help: a sign that read Urgently Need Peanut Butter. This week, they're down to a two-week supply.

I call Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, wondering if a sheriff gives to panhandlers. Turns out he, too, prefers to donate to programs to help them, though he says his wife has been known to roll down the window.

And there's the dilemma. You're doing well enough to live under a roof and ride around in a car. A man on the corner clearly has less, and he is looking at you.

"That's just simply a human exchange of caring," says the Rev. Warren Clark of Tampa, who hands over 50 cents or a buck. But the question is a superficial one, he says, the real issue being public policy and jobs to get people off the streets.

There used to be this guy by the interstate. His handmade sign talked about HIV and regularly updated his T-cell count, and if this was scripted, the man deserved an Oscar. He's gone now, no clue as to how those crumpled bills helped or didn't, only the lingering thought when you pass his spot that you wish he hadn't had to be there in the first place.

Should we fork over cash to the "homeless"? 07/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 8, 2009 9:52am]
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