In an article this weekend in The Columbus Dispatch, reporter Mark Ferenchik reports on the problem with panhandlers. Local restaurateurs in the Short North district complain that aggressive panhandling threatens patrons and business.

Years ago, a civic group, busy thinking of ways to make downtown a better place for business and culture, developed a poster. The poster stated: "It’s OK to say ‘no’ to a panhandler."

I stopped by their storefront offices and asked for a copy of the poster. A friend who works there — a good chap, very civic minded in both words and deeds — asked if I wanted it for the front window of Young Isaac.   

"Oh, no," I said. "I want it to take to my Sunday school class so I can show my students something that is ethically wrong."

Awkward silence. Then, after glancing over his shoulder, he whispered to me, "You know, I agree with you."

Know What "No" Means
You have your rights. You can say no to someone in need. All I ask is that you consider this:

  • Let’s sharpen our language. Let’s skip words like "panhandler." That’s someone’s brother out there. She’s your distant cousin, even if you are wealthy beyond your needs and wants. We are all related.
  • Can you give $5 and have the same dinner tonight? Then let’s not talk about the financial cost of saying "yes." You can afford to say "yes."
  • If you say, "no," do you have the courage to say anything more? Like "hello," "good luck," or "I’m sorry." If I just walk by, completely ignoring someone who is speaking to me, I am denying him his dignity. What does that make me?

The argument of the restaurateurs and merchants isn’t about ethics; it’s about business. As a business owner, I respect their difficulty. I’ve got my complaints, too.

But What Kind Of World Do We Want?
Years ago, a pregnant woman set up camp each day in front of Young Isaac. She begged and each time I passed her, I gave her some money.

I didn’t know her story. At first, I wondered if my money was charity, or my naive answer to her fraudulent request for help.

We often don’t know. Some people refuse to give to 100 beggars because one of them might be lying. I choose to give to 100 beggars because one of them might be telling the truth.

Efficiency is not my goal when feeding the hungry.
Feeding the hungry is the goal.

In this case, she was lying. After about four months, and no change in her medical condition, a co-worker asked me why I continued to give her money: "You know she’s not really pregnant."

It’s true. She wasn’t pregnant. She had a pillow under her sweatshirt. Each evening she climbed into a car filled with young women and pillows. I saw them. Off they drove with my money.

But I continued to give each day. I gave her money and I always gave her a kind word.

Am I a sap? Perhaps. Did the money go to alcohol or drugs? Perhaps? Did the money go to an abusive supervisor? Perhaps.

But I don’t want to live in a world where we ignore the pleas of pregnant women. Though I knew she wasn’t pregnant, she looked pregnant from across the street. I don’t want a young person, across the street, to see me sidestep an opportunity to help a stranger in need. What sort of world would that be? Economically just? Ethically impoverished.

So I gave. And it didn’t change what I had for dinner.

The problem is: begging isn’t a cause, it’s a result of many failed public policies — or an imperfect world. And my gift enables much ill behavior. But I can’t solve those problems right now. So I’m going to make the mistake of giving cash to strangers.

Because, just maybe, my kindness might work.

(P.S.: Right after writing this, I went to Blockbuster to return a video. A fellow approached me in the parking lot, walking with a 6-year-old child. He told me a story of deprivation. I thought about this blog. It cost me $5.)

You already know what I think of begging on Halloween.