TAMPA — On a Tuesday morning, a stream of cars headed into downtown Tampa brakes for a red light at Platt Street. On the curb by a Walgreens stands a man holding a cardboard sign chest-level in his dirty hands.
Anything helps. God bless, it says.
A window rolls down and a dollar bill pokes out. The man walks down the line of cars but the other drivers look through him. When the light turns green, he heads for another corner to catch traffic going the other way.
For motorists across America, the dilemma is the same: If I hand over money to a panhandler, will it go for food or just feed an addiction? Am I helping or making it worse?
To give or not to give?
No less than Pope Francis weighed in on this morality-versus-reality quandary, telling an Italian magazine last year that giving money to someone in need is "always right."
And if it’s spent on wine?
If wine is the person’s only happiness, that’s okay, the pope said — and by the way, what happiness do you seek in secret? Give, he said, and don’t worry about how it’s spent.
You could almost hear the collective groan from public officials, police and nonprofits that work daily on the unrelenting problem of homelessness.
"A random act of enabling" is what Philip Mangano,, homeless czar under President George W. Bush, calls this kind of well-intentioned donating. "There’s not a shred of evidence that random giving improves the life of a homeless person," he told the Tampa Bay Times.
Donated money, say Mangano and others, would be better spent on programs that provide specific support services or get people into housing. They say handing over a few dollars to someone who says he is hungry or a veteran only makes it easier for the most stubborn population — the chronically homeless — to keep on living difficult lives outside.
Salt Lake City took a jarringly hard-core version of this message to its downtown streets last year with billboards that say "Support panhandlers, and you support alcoholism," and also crime and drug trafficking. The signs encourage donations to service providers instead.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he has seen people here nodding off from spice — a dangerous, smokable and inexpensive high — even as they’re trying to walk. He says plenty of people have witnessed someone soliciting money on the curb head straight into a nearby store to buy alcohol. Giving money to panhandlers only perpetuates the problem, as do random church groups that show up to feed the homeless in public parks, the mayor contends.
"You’re not helping," he says.
Panhandlers are still a regular sight at intersections across Tampa and Hillsborough County despite efforts to banish them. A panhandling ban for downtown and the Ybor City entertainment district was struck down in 2016 by a federal judge as an infringement on the First Amendment, though an ordinance against aggressive panhandling stands. The county ordinance against soliciting in the roadway also applies in the city and netted 627 charges in 2017. And still they come.
Tampa Police Officer Daniel McDonald, whose job focuses on working with street people rather than arresting them, has seen begging by people in real need as well as those who spend what they take in on alcohol and spice. He tells the story of a man who regularly solicited with a sign near the International Plaza mall and drove off in a Lexus.
"Not a new Lexus, but a Lexus," McDonald said. "That was a very lucrative corner."
McDonald’s take on to-give-or-not-to-give: "I’ve never gotten anybody off the streets by giving them cash or a meal."
It’s a dilemma for the Rev. Justin LaRosa, minister at the Portico, the downtown campus of Hyde Park United Methodist Church. He knows there’s not enough emergency housing out there. He also knows giving can support addiction. When he feels compelled to give, it’s usually a meal.
"I generally don’t hand out money," LaRosa says. "But that doesn’t mean I don’t roll down the window and look them in the eye and say hello, ask them their name."
Some people strike a compromise between giving and ignoring: In their cars they carry power bars or so-called "manna bags" put together by churches containing personal items like clean socks, toothpaste and sunscreen that they can hand out the window to a person asking for help. Others even keep bus passes and fast-food gift cards in small denominations at the ready.
It’s one thing when an encounter with homelessness means occasionally seeing someone with a sign. It’s another when the problem urinates in your yard.
Kelly Grimsdale lives in a restored bungalow and owns rental properties in the historic V.M, Ybor neighborhood tucked against Interstate 4. Trinity Cafe, a nonprofit that serves hundreds of hot meals to the homeless and hungry daily, moved to V.M. Ybor’s Nebraska Avenue border five years ago. Though Trinity volunteers do regular clean-up sweeps through the residential streets, Grimsdale has complained to the city about conditions she believes would not be tolerated in other neighborhoods: trashed lots, people bedding down at bus stops, even human excrement in yards.
She and her husband have given money to an older man who needed a place for the night. She’s paid another to rake leaves. But panhandlers, no.
"It tugs at my heartstrings sometimes — you see the family there, selling water," she says. "But then I see this every day. Every face asking for money is the guy doing drugs on our street."
"I don’t know what the solution is," Grimsdale says. "But what they’re doing is not the solution."
The nonprofit Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative is a collaboration between government and businesses in Hillsborough County aimed at ending homelessness. A list of service providers that work with THHI can be found at http://thhi.org/continuum-of-care/coc-members/