Jim Kenyon: The Panhandler Problem — To Give, or Not to Give?

To give, or not to give. That’s the $1 dollar question when you’re stopped at a red light on Route 12A in West Lebanon and a guy (or, occasionally, a woman) carrying an “I’m Homeless” sign approaches your car.

Should you reach for your wallet? Hand over the loose change in your cup holder? Or pretend to be checking baseball scores on your smartphone’s ESPN app?

I’ve done them all.

There are a lot of reasons why giving money to panhandlers is a bad idea, starting with, it can do more harm than good. If they’re battling substance abuse, the argument goes, they’ll just use the money to feed their habit.

Instead of turning over cash to a stranger at a traffic light, it probably makes more sense to contribute to one of the Upper Valley’s many worthy social service organizations. They can put the money to better use.

Then there’s the believability factor. Is the sign-holder truly down and out, or running some a small-time scam?

On a recent Sunday morning, landscaper Jesse Mohn and his boss were cleaning up the flower beds at the entrance of the Wal-Mart shopping plaza. Off and on for a couple of hours, they watched a bearded middle-aged man dressed in dirty work clothes ask drivers at the stoplight for financial help. Judging by the number of people who handed over money, Mohn figured the panhandler was having a profitable morning. Finally, the man put away the sign and went into Price Chopper.

“He came out with a shopping cart full of groceries and got into a car newer than what I’ve got,” said Mohn.

On the other hand, Mohn has seen sign-holders he could sympathize with. Through Facebook, he heard about a 12A panhandler who had lost his job and was dealing with a sick daughter. When Mohn saw the man on 12A, he handed him $30. “If someone really needs it, I’ll try to help them,” he said.

I think most people feel the same ambivalent way.

But deciding if the need is real and the spontaneous gift of a dollar or two is in a homeless person’s best interest is always a tough call. So I called the Rev. William Kaliyadan, the pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Lebanon. From our conservations on adjacent treadmills at the Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, I’ve come to respect “Father William” as a deep thinker who doesn’t view the world strictly in black and white.

Over the phone, I asked: What should people do when face-to-face with a panhandler?

“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “It’s a tug of war between the heart and the mind. My heart tells me that they are genuinely in need. But there’s the other side that makes me wonder whether this is a legitimate case of homelessness, or are they going to end up using the money to abuse drugs or alcohol.”

I also talked with Kaliyadan about another part of the equation — the satisfaction that people get from giving. “When you give money, you’re doing something good,” he said. “We’re responding to a social crisis — homelessness and poverty. Our eyes are being opened to the needy.”

If people choose not to give, that’s their choice. And they should probably leave it at that. Lebanon police receive complaints about panhandlers, who seem to be in more abundance than usual this summer, but “they’re doing nothing illegal, unless they’re blocking traffic,” Deputy Police Chief Phil Roberts told me. “If they’re creating a safety issue, we’ll ask them to move along.”

Last Tuesday, a man who looked to be in his 40s held a cardboard sign at the bottom of the I-89 North exit ramp that empties onto 12A. “Homeless and Sober,” his sign read. “Very Grateful 4 Any Work Offers and Kind Gestures.”

From a short distance, I watched the man, who wore his hair in a pony tail, pace up and down the grassy side of the exit ramp with his sign. The noontime sun beat down on his tanned arms.

How’s it going? I asked.

“I’ve had better days, but I’ve had worse,” he said.

He wasn’t interested in talking with me, particularly when I asked his name. I walked back to the Sunoco gas station and convenience store. Shortly thereafter, the man folded up his sign, picked up his backpack, and headed toward the store. He came out with a 99 cent can of iced green tea. He joined me at the picnic table near the gas pumps.

“I’m fairly new at this,” he told me. He’d lost his job in southern Vermont, where he worked as a caretaker and gardener until a few months ago. “I’m living in my car now,” he said.

His sign seeking “work offers” had landed him a job for a day earlier in the summer doing cleanup work for a roofer. After talking for a few minutes, he went back to the store to retrieve his sign, which he had left at the front entrance. He returned with the sign and a pack of Pall Malls. “The last of my addictions,” he said.

Along with money, people hand him food, gift cards to fast-food restaurants and scratch-off lottery tickets, he said. About 75 percent of the people who give him money are women. But holding up a “homeless” sign is “not a good way to get a girlfriend,” he joked.

After finishing his iced tea, he headed back to the Route 20 exit ramp. “I’d like to make $25 to $30 today,” he said. I asked what he does when he’s driving and comes across a panhandler.

“I give them what I can,” he said. “It’s a karma thing.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.