GIVING, BUT NOT NECESSARILY HELPING
There’s a panhandler I pass most every day on my walk in to work. He’s a friendly sort, not at all threatening. I always greet him with a “good morning!” and occasionally — I have to admit — a bit of change.
“Oh, why thank you, sir!” he always says. (He’s very polite).
I harbour no illusions about what that money is being used for. He’s in bad shape, my panhandler, and alcohol abuse, I suspect, is the reason.
Yet the urge to give is strong — and so is the feeling of guilt if I pass him without parting with some change, particularly when the weather is bad.
The more I think about it, though, the more I am forced to admit that my occasional generosity really does my panhandler no good. In fact, it probably hurts him.
My head says that if I really want to help, I should be giving money to city charities instead of tossing coins into an upturned hat.
My heart, though, tells me to give to him. It’s a nasty tug of war. Aggressive panhandling is illegal, but to sit passively and put a hat out for money, as my panhandler does, is perfectly fine.
But the people who sit on sidewalks asking for change are usually not doing it because they enjoy it. It’s likely they’re supporting a habit.
Georges Bédard, the city councillor for Rideau-Vanier ward, which takes in Lowertown and the ByWard Market, says 90 per cent of the money panhandlers collect goes to buy alcohol or drugs.
Many people who give, he says, are in denial about that. They give either out of pity — or just to make the person go away.
And people do give. They give generously. Mr. Bédard says one study showed a panhandler’s average take was $35 an hour.
(Philip Powell, the city’s markets manager for the ByWard and Parkdale markets, recalled one time, just before Christmas two years ago, seeing panhandlers getting $10 or $15 with one ask.)
Mr. Bédard says a hit of crack costs about $3, so panhandling is an easy way to support the habit.
In order to discourage panhandling and encourage donations to local charities, a number of downtown individuals and organizations banded together to create the GiveSmart program.
“There is no need for anyone to be hungry or go without a bed in downtown Ottawa,” says a brochure available at City Hall, explaining that there are 10 places serving free meals, 10 places that give free groceries, five that give free clothing, and three main facilities — the Shepherds of Good Hope, the Ottawa Mission and the Salvation Army — that provide shelter.
“Most panhandlers are not homeless,” adds the GiveSmart website, www.givesmartottawa.ca.
The program encourages people who want to be generous to donate to charities that deal with the homeless and the mentally ill.
One way to do that has been to install six “kindness meters” — parking meter clones that are painted white — along Rideau Street and in the ByWard Market.
“The money collected in this meter will be given to the community groups dedicated to providing services and resources for the homeless,” says a city brochure; the GiveSmart website adds that over $4,000 has been collected since November of last year.
And yet panhandlers still get money.
The problem, I think, is that stuffing change into a white parking meter or writing a cheque to a charity seems so indirect. My panhandler and I have established a human connection; I recognize him, he recognizes me.
And for me, that’s the nub of the issue.
It’s easy to say no when you are approached by someone who is aggressive, or anonymous, or who asks for something non-essential. (I didn’t find it hard to refuse the woman who last week asked me for $1.50 for kitty litter.)
But my panhandler asks for nothing, and he’s cheery whether I give or not.
We would be hard-hearted indeed if we did not react when confronted — directly — with distress and obvious need on the part of someone who is part of our day. By giving we ease our own conscience — without stopping to consider whether we are really helping the person in front of us. The reality is that we aren’t. The tug of war between heart and head goes on. It will go on until one day I will realize my panhandler is not at his usual spot anymore.
My heart will hope he’s gone to seek help.
My head will know otherwise.