Don’t forget the panhandler

Anyone with a mailbox, telephone or e-mail address knows by now we are deep within the giving season because dozens of national charitable organizations have launched their holiday fund campaigns.

Everybody from the American Red Cross to the Vacaville Police Officers Association is looking for a little financial help during these uncertain economic times.

And, undoubtedly, most of these organizations deserve our support.

There is, however, an easily accessible charity out there that will never send you an e-mail, drop you a letter or telephone for funds while you’re trying to eat dinner.

Panhandlers have no carefully organized holiday fund campaigns, mass mailings or TV spots to let you know of their plight. A torn piece of cardboard with words to the effect of “Please Help …” is about as high-tech as these folks ever get.

Multimillion-dollar charitable organizations will tell you about all the unfortunate folks your donations can help, but you rarely meet those people and seldom see where your dollars are going beyond a form letter.

Don’t get me wrong. Support the charity of your choice, but take a little time to support the next panhandler you encounter, too.

If you’ve got a few bucks when you meet a guy who’s down and out on the sidewalk, feel free to spread your wealth around. It’s really pretty painless, you’ll usually get a heartfelt thanks from the recipient, and he most likely won’t be mailing you a request for more funds next December.

It’s kind of sad, but we usually hear more excuses for not giving to panhandlers than reasons for giving to them:”Those guys choose to be homeless. They like it.””He’ll just use that money to buy booze.””That guy’s probably making a fortune doing this.””They’re lazy. They oughta get a job.”

Sorry. Nobody really enjoys sleeping under a bridge or overpass, or standing out in the rain hoping a passing stranger will toss them some spare change.

I know of no millionaire panhandlers, although the concept makes for a great urban myth.

Get a job? Millions are out of work right now and it’s not for lack of trying. Many of the homeless suffer from physical and mental health problems that make it difficult to secure a full-time job.

And then there’s that job interview. Try making a good impression on a future boss after you’ve been sleeping in an abandoned Chevy for three months.

Will the panhandler spend your donation on booze? Perhaps, but sometimes when you’re wet and cold and friendless, you might just need a drink. If you’re a chronic alcoholic, you might also need that booze just to be able to get some food into your stomach. Believe me, I know.

But it’s really none of our business how the panhandler spends our donations. At least we can be fairly sure it’s not going to pay the salary of his six-figure program administrator or chief executive officer in New York.

That money goes directly from you to the guy who needs it most, and that’s about as good as charity gets, amigos.

Originally published December 19, 2004