In part one of this series, I explored a couple religious views on how and why to give to people in need this season. Continuing to examine my own conscience, I’m a little less heavenly now and floating closer to home.
It’s a serious problem – and it’s not just our problem. Art imitates life, and the recent production of Les Miserables that impressed local audiences offered us one perspective on the situation:
At the end of the day you’re another day older
And that’s all you can say for the life of the poor
It’s a struggle, it’s a war
And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving
One more day standing about, what is it for?
One day less to be living.
Lest you think this story encourages us to only empathize with the situation of the poor (Occupy Saint-Michel, anyone?), Victor Hugo demonstrates how people take advantage of generosity. Two of the most celebrated characters in the show are the Thénardiers – an innkeeper and his wife who (in addition to flat out thievery) lie about their situation to get more money out of people. So – it’s a problem as old as time. The poor legitimately need support, but there are people who play on those sympathies and manipulate us to get something for nothing. And those people give those in need a bad rep. Seems like Hugo’s world is somewhat similar to our own serious problems.
But back to the streets of Dayton. When the panhandling law in town was passed, local business owner Karl Williamson was a big proponent of change. You may have seen one of his two videos on the DaytonInformer site talking about panhandling. Karl owns and operates Urban Krag – a downtown climbing gym inside an old church building (seriously cool). Karl has the perspective of a downtowner who lives, works, and plays Dayton. It’s been a little while since the law went into effect, so I went back to Karl to get his thoughts on how to approach panhandling and what he’s seeing on the streets.
Megan Cooper – Do you feel like panhandling has gone down since the new law went into effect?
Karl Williamson – I feel it has, especially at the major intersections as well as on and off ramps downtown. Shortly after the law was put in place (the panhandlers) did move into the neighborhoods and business districts a bit more, but even that has died off or at least I’m not seeing it.
MC – As a business owner, how does panhandling negatively affect your business?
KW – Around a year ago, I had a family in from Indiana. They… had food delivered and spent the day here; they spent quite a bit of money here, including big tips for employees working that day. The father talked of making it a monthly family outing. On their way out the door they were confronted by a panhandler. The father was so afraid for his children that he stepped in between the children and the panhandler. I haven’t seen that family back here since. It not only affects my business, but downtown as a whole.
MC – Do you ever personally give to people on the streets who ask?
KW – I did when I first moved down here, but not anymore. Now it depends on what they are asking for or the reason behind why they want money. If it’s for food, I offer to buy them food; if they decline then I know they are trying to pull a con. I’ve bought food for panhandlers twice since i have lived down town (15 years). If they are asking for a ride, if its within reason, I might give them a ride, but I never give them money.
MC – So this makes me wonder – is it our responsibility to have to determine who legitimately needs help and who’s pulling a con?
KW – Responsibility? That I’m not sure of, people do what they want to do; I simply don’t like being taken by someone pulling on my heart strings. How do you know you’re helping them? Maybe it’s a drug addict needing money for a fix. It’s a good idea to take a look at the person before reaching into your pocket. Usually folks that ask for money while using an iPhone and wearing $200.00 sneakers are pulling a con. It’s also not a bad idea to be aware of your environment – what’s going on around you. The instant you reach into your pocket, you’re unconsciously showing them where you are keeping your money, it may be a set up for a mugging. Bottom line: use common sense.
MC – What do you believe can be done to raise the level of living in our community without supporting panhandling?
KW – I would love to see the “kindness meters” installed downtown. People keep forgetting about the money in this dilemma. People are willing to give and they want to help – the kindness meters simply intercept that money from the panhandlers (which is always questionable) and give it to outreach programs. The only real way you’re going to know if you have really helped someone is to give to the outreach programs. Dayton has a big heart, and I’m really tired of seeing liars and cheats take the money away from folks that really need it.
Karl’s last statement is my exact dilemma – how are we as people to determine who really needs it? Although it takes some of the personal interaction away (and I’m not saying if that’s a good or a bad thing) – giving to the outreach programs does seem like a solution. Of course, there’s always questions about how much of your money goes to administrative costs – but on the flip side, these larger programs have more buying power. So your $5 may cover one meal for a person you meet on the street, but that small amount of money can make a bigger difference at a local agency. For example, it costs St. Vincent de Paul only $10 to provide 3 meals.
In pursuit of a deeper perspective, I wanted to talk to someone who works with those in need on a daily basis. I talked to Terry Williamson (no relation to Karl) from St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) and asked her about this challenge. Personally, she gives change to the person on the street who asks with the belief that it’s not her responsibility to determine how that money is used. Rather than question how the money is used she says, “to me that’s losing faith in your fellow human being… and if you don’t have faith in your fellow man, that’s sad.”
But she can’t make that call for anyone else, and she understands that it may not be feasible to give money every time you’re asked. When approached, Williamson also communicates to those in need that there is a shelter (SVdP never turns people away although there is a limited number of beds) where hot meals and a warm environment is available. When I asked her what those of us who may be more cynical can do when we are approached for money, she recommended carrying bus tokens to offer to those in need. A bus token meets a very specific need and can’t easily be used for other purposes.
Williamson says, “Many of us don’t have to think about where that next meal comes from.” She reminded me, “The need gets greater as it gets cold out…The people that we see come from all walks of life and are each individual people with their own individual stories. It’s not just a ‘herd’ of people or a ‘class’ of people; it is all people.” Speaking of the people they serve – over 50 children go to the shelter for a warm place to sleep, staying overnight in a large dorm room with 70 women.
Speaking to Williamson reinforced the idea that regardless of those who panhandle for profit, there is still a great need in the community. And as the weather turns colder and with the end of year appeals, it is important to find a way to offer something. Maybe that’s with manpower; Williamson said of SVdP, “We use about 800 volunteers a month doing a number of different things – preparing meals, serving meals, washing sheets and towels, handing out baskets.” Maybe it’s by giving financially to an organization you can trust (you can check out many charities through online resources like CharityNavigator or BBB). Or maybe it’s by brightening someone’s day with a smile and saying hello to the person on the street you usually walk by. It’s an individual decision, and one that I’m still struggling with finding the right thing for me.
But I will share – as I was putting this article together (it’s been a long time coming) – I thought about the people I ran into. And just this week, a man stopped me outside the coffee shop with a story of how he needs some cash to get on the bus. I lied. I said I didn’t have any cash. But since I was about 30 minutes early for my meeting, I offered to walk with him over to the bus station to buy a token. He was really grateful and said yes! Honestly, I was surprised; the cynic in me was expecting him to say no (with the thought that it wasn’t really a bus ride he needed). But we began to walk. And we talked. He told me he came from the SVdP shelter, but the one downtown is only for women and children, so he had to make his way out to Gettysburg Avenue. And we talked about the shops downtown. And we talked about the weather. And when we got to the bus station, I bought him a few tokens (and kept some for myself – to use or give away). I know it’s ridiculous, but on this sunny day I enjoyed walking with a total stranger and doing something nice and easy. It won’t always happen. I know myself well enough to know that it won’t happen when I’m cold or when it’s raining or when I’m late to a meeting. But I’m glad it happened when it did, and I hope I do it again.
So – my challenge for you, dear reader (if you’ve been able to put up with this long self-examination), is to do something just outside your comfort zone. Do it the way it feels right for you. Maybe that’s to offer change in your pocket or maybe that’s to volunteer for a few hours. Maybe it’s to work for systemic change to make Dayton a place where basic needs are met in ways that stop panhandling. But whatever it is, try something new this season and see how you feel.