by Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.

Founder and CEO

Joy Junction Inc.

Do you help or not?
Do you help or not?

They’re all over Albuquerque and cities nationwide, holding a variety of signs designed to get you to fork over some spare change.

Panhandling verbiage ranges from a simple, “Hungry. God bless,” to “Too honest to steal and too ugly to prostitute.”

What do you do? Sometimes it can seem like you’re surrounded. Are they genuine, or is it a scam? Responses I’ve heard from people as they’ve observed Albuquerque’s proliferation of panhandlers have ranged from compassion to judgment and all points between.

Of course, we can’t forget that everyone also has their own (usually anecdotal) story of the panhandler who makes $1,000 or so each day, “So no wonder they don’t want to get a job.”

In reality, daily earnings from panhandling are typically a fraction of the amounts you may have heard. The range varies from a few dollars (and maybe an indecent proposal) to perhaps enough to buy a low rent motel room for the night.

But what do you do when you see a panhandler? Give a couple of bucks, avert your eyes or mutter, “He could get a job if he wanted.”

Here’s the most important thing to remember. Decide how you are going to respond to a panhandler before you see one looming on the median by your car.

Are you going to ignore the plea, try for eye contact, or (if you feel comfortable) put the window down and offer a fast food gift card or perhaps a homeless survival kit and a bottle of water?

Any items you’re planning to give, remember to keep in easy reach. To ensure that you, the panhandler and other drivers stay safe, you often have only a few seconds to give assistance before the light changes. We experienced this recently, while giving a smile and a fast food gift card to a grateful panhandler.

So here’s the million dollar (not really, more like the $1) question.

Should you give money, as in cold, hard cash to a panhandler? I rarely do so, but if a gut feeling or spiritual motivation prompts you to do so, then as soon as the cash leaves your hand, forget about it. Give it “unto the Lord.” It is now the recipient’s responsibility what they do with it-not yours. If you can’t do that, then give something “safer.”

The other thing I hear quite a lot is that panhandlers could work “if they wanted.” That statement is presumably based upon seeing a physically able person panhandling. However, under the healthy physical veneer, who knows what is happening? The most crippling diseases are not always the ones you see.

Someone might be well capable of holding a panhandling sign for a few hours, but there’s a lot of difference between doing that and keeping a regular job. Remember that to stay employed you have to be clean, show up to work on time, and usually have a phone so your employer can contact you. Your chances of success decrease significantly without any of these.

Yes, I know the government provides mobile phones for some people, but you still have to find a place to power the device. Having somewhere to charge a phone is something we don’t usually think about. However, the only thing the homeless can take for granted is knowing they can take nothing for granted.

Whatever decision you make about whether or not to interact with a panhandler, please do so compassionately. The answer to the request you’re considering may have a huge impact on that person’s life-and perhaps yours as well.

And my new year’s resolution is to err on the side of compassion rather than judgment. How about yours?

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