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Try Helping Those Who Help Themselves
Panhandlers! Are their down-and-out stories true? Is their need serious? How do you respond?

The newcomer scanned the group gathered at the back of our church. I went to welcome him. As I neared, however, I sensed that he hadn't come to seek the Spirit, but simply to panhandle the pastor.

I processed my scepticism silently as he finished his pitch.

Trying to cast aside my suspicions, I introduced myself. He mumbled his name and went straight into the pitch. "I'm from Nova Scotia, and I rolled my truck outside of town last night. I don't want to bother you, but I really need just $11.47 to get my truck back on the road."

As he talked, I noticed the strong smell of alcohol. It was more than a whiff of his breath, but more like when a person has drunk so much it's seeping out his pores. I wanted to challenge his story.

I wanted to suggest if he rolled his truck after drinking he was more in need of addiction treatment than roadside assistance. I wondered where he stayed last night after "rolling his truck."

I wanted to ask exactly what he would accomplish with $11.47. Was it enough to get him back to his truck, hire a few passersby to roll it over and push it out of the ditch, get some gas and get going again?

Maybe he already had an estimate from a towing company, had the majority of the funds in his pocket and was only asking for the balance. I was tempted to ask him to show me the rest of the money—if he had any.

I processed my scepticism silently as he finished his pitch.

He wrapped up with, "I went to a few other places and they wouldn't help. I figured who better than a church to help people in need? So I checked out a few this morning and couldn't get any help. You're my last hope."

There it was. He had laid out his need for cash, hoping to tap into some sense of guilt or any hint of a saviour complex. Here was my chance to be better than all the other allegedly greedy, calloused, unspiritual folk who hadn't helped him to this point.

He had baited his hook well and waited for the slightest nibble to reel me in.

Already late for a meeting, I didn't have time to discuss my doubts or get into details. I just told him I didn't have any money for him. He tried one more guilt trip, but when he sensed it wouldn't make a difference, he left.

I've heard variations on this story about 15 times this winter. But I've heard countless stories and requests for cash over the years.

Some requests are sufficiently creative to be turned into screenplays. After the first few minutes, however, it becomes evident that the engaging pitch is purely the creation of a desperate imagination or a powerful addiction.

I like it best when people are honest.

But honesty can't be the only test. What do you do with a guy who's as honest as the guy in the picture on this page? We met him while travelling in the States last year. My boys saw him first and called me over to meet him. When I saw his sign, I was less shocked at the profanity than the crass nature of his appeal. He allowed us to take his picture. Now, when I show it to people, their reaction is similar to mine at the time.

Even with him, I had my doubts. I started wondering if the guy wasn't an addict as advertised, but rather a struggling actor with a new act to pay the rent. I guess I didn't want to believe him. I wondered if it would be easier to hear some street-corner fiction than the sordid reality.

I don't know if his sign earned him more pity than pennies. But I did notice he seemed to be gathering much more money from passersby than the needier-looking guys farther down the street with their hat in hand.

I have to balance the limits of my own resources with the trust I have in the request …

Then there are the sincere requests of the needy. Heart-wrenching stories of loss and despair. If the stories check out, we usually want to do much more than we can for these folks.

The most difficult requests are when you don't know if the person is asking from need or sloth, from addiction or hunger, for their family or their dealer. I can usually offer an educated and experienced guess as to the legitimacy of a request. In the end, I have to balance the limits of my own resources with the trust I have in the request and the relationship I have—or can have—with the person who's asking.

I remember panhandling at the Winnipeg Airport in the late '70s during a layover on my way to New York. The wait was longer than expected and I was hungry. With only a few pennies in my pocket, I panhandled my way to a meal. I ate slowly, contemplating the humbling experience of begging for that meal.

To this day, I don't enjoy asking people for money. I'm not asking for myself anymore. Now I'm "panhandling" for bigger amounts for community work and housing revitalization. These are noble causes and every dollar is spent responsibly, but I still feel like a beggar asking folks with resources to help us. If people don't look interested, I don't persist. That just makes me feel even worse.

I can't tell you how to deal with every panhandler you'll meet. I agree with the need for a bylaw to control the aggressive panhandlers who believe their "right" to my money supersedes my right to continue walking down the sidewalk. I know that what panhandlers want is not always what they need.

Personally, I've become more careful giving money to the people who are hurting themselves with my generosity. That way I'll have some left to help those who are helping themselves—with just a little assistance from a stranger.

Rev. Harry Lehotsky is the founding pastor of New Life Ministries in Winnipeg, MB.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Sun, January 25, 2004




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