The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Chuck Plun­kett

Not so long ago, in a Den­ver shop­ping cen­ter far from the gaunt­let of the 16th Street Mall, a young man stood in the park­ing lot with a sign ask­ing for money to feed his fam­ily. Next to him, a young woman sat un­der a tiny tree hold­ing an in­fant.

They looked the def­i­ni­tion of dis­traught, new to this hu­mil­i­a­tion. Their clothes were clean. They lacked phys­i­cal signs of ad­dic­tion, but of course, who knows?

What­ever was go­ing on with the cou­ple, it was the kind of scene that breaks your heart.

Sev­eral weeks later, in a dif­fer­ent shop­ping cen­ter, a young woman stood with a sign ask­ing for money, a baby in her arms. The woman ap­peared se­ri­ously fright­ened.

I had never per­son­ally come across such scenes. I am em­bar­rassed to ad­mit I didn’t know what to

do. When I walk about down­town in Den­ver and other cities, I have a plan. I po­litely de­cline to give. If I am moved to give, I sup­port the char­i­ties that work with the pop­u­la­tion.

But what is one sup­posed to do when the beg­gar has a baby?

Panic scram­bled my think­ing. The first time I wor­ried: Would a 911 call make things worse for the fam­ily? Would so­cial work­ers take the child? The sec­ond time sur­faced new fears: If I give, what if she gets loaded and ne­glects her baby? If I don’t, what if some­one takes ad­van­tage?

Some­times you don’t want to get in­volved, but feel you have to.

To an­swer this ques­tion, I talked to ded­i­cated hu­man­i­tar­i­ans from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, in­clud­ing: Jerene Petersen, deputy di­rec­tor for com­mu­nity part­ner­ships with the state Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices; Jeff Hunt, who di­rects Colorado Chris­tian Univer­sity’s Cen­ten­nial In­sti­tute; Larry Smith, pres­i­dent and CEO of Catholic Char­i­ties in Den­ver; and of­fi­cials at the Mile High United Way.

Won­der­fully, they of­fered an ar­ray of choices. Let’s work through them, from sim­ple in- volve­ment to more ad­vanced.

What about just giv­ing money? Most of the folks I talked to said hand­ing over cash is still the wrong call. Cen­ten­nial’s Hunt is some­what the ex­cep­tion, say­ing that Je­sus ex­pects ac­tion when you’re asked for help. Giv­ing money is de­fen­si­ble; what the re­cip­i­ent does with the money is be­tween her and God.

Yet a bet­ter strat­egy, Hunt said, is to pre­pare what his church net­work calls “bless­ing bags,” sacks filled with en­ergy bars, toi­letries and the like.

That sec­ond strat­egy is shared by the oth­ers. Food is a uni­ver­sal good. It helps. So do di­a­pers, sun­screen and bus to­kens. If you don’t have a bag read­ied to give, there’s al­ways the gro­cery store.

Hunt’s church net­work also sup­ports Den­ver Res­cue Mis­sion and Catholic Char­i­ties, which brings us to Smith, who of­fers this ad­vice: Talk to and pray with the fam­ily. He says do­ing so is al­most al­ways a pos­i­tive and mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

But what if you’re not among the faith­ful? Or you want to do more?

Find out what is most needed right then and long term and di­rect them to or­ga­ni­za­tions like Smith’s, which can help in both cases.

Don’t call 911. As Petersen, at DHS, puts it, it’s not a crime to be poor.

Do call 211. Pretty much any­where in the coun­try this free and con­fi­den­tial hot­line has a lot of ad­van­tages. In our area, it’s run by the Mile High United Way. Its staffers have ac­cess to a mas­sive data­base of ser­vices avail­able. Op­er­a­tors will know where the shel­ter beds are, where to find ad­dic­tion or abuse coun­sel­ing and work or train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. They’re skilled at con­nect­ing the dis­tressed to those who can help. (The web­page also has op­tions to search for ser­vices, or text or chat.)

Don’t ex­pect im­me­di­ate re­sults. Those who beg are com­ing from places a lot of us can’t imag­ine. Not all are im­me­di­ately able or ready to leave what­ever’s got them down.

If noth­ing else, Petersen says, smile. Don’t look off in fright; it could be in­ter­preted as dis­gust. Ac­knowl­edge the hu­man be­ing be­fore you. A smile of­fers ac­cep­tance and a much-needed flash of sol­i­dar­ity.

For that young mother to get back on her feet, for that baby to have a chance, we’ve got to demon­strate to her our so­ci­ety is

worth the ef­fort.

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