My view: Help the real poor, not the panhandlers

By Clark Larsen

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 6:29 p.m. MST

The word beggar is not a synonym for the word poor. The truly poor, homeless, and hungry here in America often lack the skills necessary to make a living panhandling.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

When people apply for a job they are saying, "Will work for food." When people write those words on a cardboard sign, they are seldom telling the truth. The same goes for the words “hungry,” “homeless,” or "please help me with my travel plans to … "

Marjorie Cortez wrote an excellent article on the subject ("Eye on panhandlers," Feb. 12) as did KSL’s Mike Headrick ("Business of Begging: The real stories behind Utah panhandling" Nov. 25, 2013).

The word beggar is not a synonym for the word poor. The truly poor, homeless, and hungry here in America often lack the skills necessary to make a living panhandling. They don’t always brush after each meal, don’t necessarily bath daily, and laundry may be sketchy at best, so they don’t look or smell their best during a presentation. Also, they may not be so articulate as the average mendicant you meet on the street. Furthermore, they may lack the discipline to be on time to their assigned location and to stay there all day.

The final quote in the foregoing article comes from Gerald, "Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean the bills stop coming." Which begs the question, if he really is homeless and hungry, where are the bills coming from and what is the address to which they’re being sent? A high percentage of cash given to street beggars ends up in the pocket of a distiller or in some drug lord’s Swiss account. How is it that I presume to know so much about panhandlers and the poor?

Law enforcement is my profession, and it has brought me in frequent contact with beggars and with the poor. I have seen them in poor and in dirt poor countries like the Dominican Republic, Fiji, Indonesia, Poland, Romania, Thailand, I have met with and talked with them in their hogans, shanties and government housing projects. I have participated in and even supervised a variety of surveys of the homeless living under bridges, freeway overpasses, in the corners of the park, and in dugouts.

I have seen, talked with, and even gotten to know panhandlers who work around the United Nations building in New York, in the park across the street from the White House, and at the temple gates here in Salt Lake City. I use the word "work" because in those conversations I have often referred to what they do as their "job" and not one has ever corrected me on the use of that word. In fact, they sometimes use it themselves.

For a long time, when I saw a sign that said "hungry" or was asked for money for food, I would offer to take that person to a nearby cafeteria and buy them a meal. In all those years I only ever had two people take me up on the offer. One, in Lafayette Park, explained that if he did, he would "loose his place." Next I tried buying a 12 pack of meal coupons from a nearby Wendy’s. Mostly the beggars turned those down also. The two or three that did take them then threw them in the gutter when they thought I wasn’t watching.

Here’s my view of the people who give cash to panhandlers. They are kindly, good-hearted, and under-informed. I think at least some do it because it is easy, convenient, cheep, it eases their conscience, it’s a good way to pat themselves on the back for their generosity, or even a way to make a public display of their charity. The sad part is that every dollar they give away to panhandlers is a dollar they can’t then give to a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. When Mark McGregor, in the previously cited article said, "We don’t hurt anyone," he wasn’t being entirely accurate.

Might I suggest that the next time you feel inclined to give a dollar to a beggar, that you take care of it for the year by dropping 12 dollars in the Salvation Army kettle, or write a 52 dollar check to a homeless shelter, or a 365 dollar check to a soup kitchen, or even make it personal by skipping a couple of meals and writing a check for their value, and check the box for the poor on the church’s donation slip, or put your check in the poor box at your church. The truly poor will thank you — the brewers and drug lords, not so much.

Clark Larsen is a resident of Holladay, and has worked in law enforcement.

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