Simonson Says: Is it ethical to give to panhandlers?

At the end of last year, right in the thick of the giving season, KSL ran an expose of sorts on panhandlers that is probably still making its Facebook rounds. The story by Mike Headrick discussed the “business of begging,” exposing multiple panhandlers whom reporters investigated and found were not homeless or even poor. For some, asking for other people’s money is more lucrative than you’d guess.

The part of every article I’m most interested in is the comments, and the ones on this story were compelling, if not comfortable to read. Half the commenters said they would continue giving to panhandlers, that their hands are clean as to how the recipients choose to actually spend the money. The other half told the former group that they were part of the problem, that enabling panhandlers to buy drugs or even just luxuries makes the giver just as bad. They accused the givers of just wanting an easy way to feel like they’re on the moral high road and pat themselves on the back, without thinking about the consequences.

Especially for those who work in urban areas like downtown Ogden and Salt Lake, this is a moral question we face on the regular: Is it doing more harm than good to give to panhandlers? And what does it say about us if we do or don’t give to them? When I did an internship in Salt Lake’s City Creek Center area over the summer, I ran up against this question up to 10 times a day. Oftentimes, I simply didn’t have any cash, so my hands were tied. I soon made a habit of carrying change, which I figured was money I was probably never going to use but would go a long way toward a dollar-menu burger or bus ticket for someone who needed it. I’m sorry to say I was a huge sucker for the panhandlers who had dogs with them, even knowing as I did that having a dog or child with you for sympathy is the oldest trick in the book.

Personally, I don’t go out of my way to always have cash for panhandlers, especially now that I don’t work in Salt Lake anymore and don’t encounter them as often, but I’m not going to apologize for giving some change or a $1 bill when I have it, either. I don’t see why either side of the debate should shame each other in this matter. It seems pretty narrow-minded and overly cynical to claim that someone who chooses to give away money, however much or little, has equal culpability in the matter as one who chooses to abuse their generosity. I would rather give to 100 people who chose to waste my little bit of change than turn my nose up at even one person who truly needed it.

But that’s just me. I have absolutely no judgment for someone who refuses to give to panhandlers, nor for someone who gives to every one they see. We all work for our money and have every right to choose how we spend it. When someone gives a gift or donation, monetary or otherwise, I do think the recipient has a certain obligation to use it for the purpose the giver intended. (My mom once knew a guy who, when his neighbor brought him a pie to welcome him to the neighborhood, smashed it against the door frame right in front of said neighbor. “What?” he said. “You gave it to me, so I can do what I want with it.”) But, outside of stalking them, there is no way to ensure your money is used for food or necessities in this matter, so if you’re not comfortable trusting your 50 cents to the honor system, then just don’t give it. No one will judge you, but you shouldn’t judge them for giving either.

Something I’ve done in the past is go downtown equipped with things people will have to use for their intended purpose, like nonperishable snacks, water bottles and winter gloves. Only the people who plan to use them will take them, so there’s little chance of them being wasted or traded for drugs.

Another thing you can do if you’re conflicted on this is to donate to homeless shelters or other organized charity programs. Research them well so you know exactly where your money is going if the thought of it being wasted bothers you but you still want to give.

We all have our horror stories of panhandlers stealing from us, conning us, refusing food when they claim to be hungry, or acting rude and entitled to our money. It’s not a crime if you choose not to give to them. But if it really makes some people feel like they did something good, well, that’s not a crime either. Let’s not police each other in this matter.