You pull up to an intersection and he or she is standing there, with a sad face and a cardboard sign: “Homeless. Need help. God bless.” What do you do?
If you look away, you may feel bad. If you give money, you also may feel bad. Are you being taken advantage of? Are you helping feed the panhandler’s addiction?
Lexington has seen a proliferation of panhandlers since the state Supreme Court recently struck down the city’s 2007 ordinance, saying it violates beggars’ First Amendment right to free speech.
Police have stepped up patrols to combat aggressive panhandlers, because it remains illegal for them to make people feel threatened. But police cannot stop them from making people feel guilty.
At a news conference this week, city officials urged people to not give panhandlers money, but instead refer them to social services agencies for help. “No one has to beg in Lexington to find food and shelter,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “We have those resources.”
Is that the right thing to do? If not, what is?
Lexington is a generous community, ranked last year by a national research firm as the nation’s second-most generous city based on the percentage of residents who give to charities and other non-profits.
Lexington also is a community of many faiths. So what do religious leaders say?
Rev. Mark Davis of First Presbyterian Church agrees with city officials. Because of the church’s location on Mill Street a block below Gratz Park, transients often approach people outside the church and ask for money.
The church has posted signs in its parking lot urging people not to give panhandlers money. “We work alongside a number of community organizations to serve those in need,” the signs say. “For more information on how you can help, contact the church office at 859.252.1919.”
“We encourage folks to have Subway cards, Kroger cards or bus passes to give to those seeking help,” Davis said, adding that the church provides many forms of other assistance. “For my part, I don't give money to folks. I do give time, conversation and often offer to buy a meal for someone.
“I also observe that giving people money risks treating folks as a problem that can be solved with a few bucks,” he added. “If we objectify people and see them as things, obstacles or a hassle with which to dispense, then we can get off on the cheap for just a few dollars.”
Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and retired director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said her response often depends on a panhandler’s apparent circumstances.
Kemper said she tries to engage beggars in a brief conversation to see if they know what help is available in the community. Occasionally, she might give them money, if she doesn’t think they are an addict. A better idea is to have packets in your car with basic food and toiletries.
“The ethical issue arises around what constitutes ‘care’,” Kemper added. “The other method of caring is to make sure the social safety net is available. Hence, we work to maintain homeless shelters, support food pantries, provide emergency health care, and assist people who will work with our social service agencies.”
Rev. Anthony Everett, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, said he sometimes gives panhandlers money, but always speaks with them.
“Giving money, jobs, advice, etc. comes secondary,” Everett said. “Acknowledging another human being’s predicament, as (the apostles) Peter and John did, is priceless and painless.”
Rabbi David Wirtschafter of Temple Adath Israel said he gives money to panhandlers when he can.
“Judaism teaches us a guiding principle of ‘give everybody the benefit of the doubt,’” he said. “Even if some of them are taking advantage of others’ generosity, we should look upon them as a group charitably and assume the best of them. I encourage people to look in their heart and make the best choice they can.
Wirtschafter added: “I have a hard time believing that anybody is out there because they have nothing better to do. Nobody with a healthy ego wants to stand out there and be subjected to public ridicule and scorn.”
In an interview with an Italian magazine last month, Pope Francis said people should give to beggars without worry. But he also urged them to think about how and why they are giving.
“Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian,” the Roman Catholic pontiff said. “Teaching in charity is not about offloading one’s own sense of guilt, but it is touching, looking at our inner poverty that the Lord understands and saves. Because we all have inner poverty.”