Should you give money to a beggar?

Some people who work with the down and out say you should, while others believe the most charitable response is to say "no."Last week, New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch announced an advertising program to discourage people from giving money. "In most cases, in my judgment, the money that you give in the street to beggars goes for booze and drugs," said Koch.

A person or persons unknown rented four billboards last month in El Paso, Texas, to say: "Please don't give to beggars - they cause traffic problems." Many of the beggars cross from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.

In Washington, the Downtown Seattle Association distributes brochures advising: "Give a hand, not a handout."

"The main reason people are panhandling is to support alcohol and drug problems," said Jean DeMaster, director of Burnside Projects, which runs a shelter for street people in Portland, Ore. "I am absolutely convinced that if people didn't give money to panhandlers, the matter of panhandling would be drastically reduced, and more people would be forced to come in for alcohol and drug treatment."

Lisa Thomas, Project Director of Health Care for the Homeless in Cleveland, said money given to beggars may only encourage a drug or alcohol habit.

"I don't give money to people in the street and I tell my friends not to," Thomas said. "You never know where the money is going."

Gloria Guard, director of the People's Emergency Center, a shelter in west Philadelphia, said there is no right or wrong response. "It really has much more to do with my own wanting to take the opportunity to give something to somebody."

Kevin Hooper, social services secretary for the Salvation Army in Philadelphia, said an encounter with a beggar could be positive even if no money is given. "I would hope people would internalize that, and ask themselves, why are people on the street asking for money?"