The Signs are Clear, But the Response Isn't

Panhandlers prompt a range of emotions in passersby, but how should we really react?

Dan Ingersoll

steven depolo / creative commons
Source: Steven Depolo / Creative Commons

The sign said, “Homeless: Need $168 for a bus ticket to family in Fargo.” The holder of the sign looked sad and frozen to the bone. I drove past and then turned into the Aldi’s parking lot next to where he was standing. I checked my wallet: five 20s, a five, and three ones. I pulled out the five and three ones and walked over to the guy. He seemed kinda challenged or maybe just too cold to talk. I handed him the bills and said good luck. He said, “Thanks.” I drove away.

My mom used to say, “Don’t give them money, they just spend it on booze. If you can, make them a sandwich instead.”

When I first approached the guy and saw he was holding a sign, it got my ire up. “Why do I have to ruin my day?” I thought. “I don’t need to feel any guilt for you or your situation.” I tried to buy off the feeling with $8. It didn’t work. As I drove away I kept thinking, “What is my responsibility here?” I could have given him $100 and it would not have made any real difference in my life. I could have invited him home for supper and then drove him to Fargo or taken him down to the bus station and bought his ticket. Or maybe he just made his own bed so he needs to lie in it. Perhaps he’s not going to Fargo at all. Maybe tomorrow he’s going to another corner with a different sign to get begging rich. Why am I thinking about this guy at all?

A month earlier, at the same spot near Menards and Aldi’s on the south side of Eau Claire, it was a family. Dad held the sign while Mom nursed their infant child. The sign said, “Need money to get to Denver for a job interview.” I stopped and gave them a $10 bill. I thought of a Luther League field trip I took in my teens to Chicago when Paster Bob said, “You will see a lot of panhandlers. Don’t make eye contact and just keep walking. Your money is not going to change their situation. If anything, it will make it worse.” And then I thought, “What set of circumstances would bring you to sitting down on the corner with your family begging for money from passersby in the freezing cold?”

Since then, these incidents seem more commonplace in the Menards/Aldi’s area. More folks with signs and asking for help. “I am a child of Christ. Are you a Christian? Please help any way you can,” was yesterday’s sign, along with “Will work for food.” I just drove past and did not make eye contact. “Just too damn many of them,” I rationalized.

Who are these people? What are there stories? Where are they from? Who is responsible? Would it make a difference if we knew? I don’t think they are players in the Eau Claire Renaissance, do you?

I have no answers, only questions. How about you?

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