Instead of giving a panhandler a handout, just give him a hand

I’m really not a bad person. I don’t litter. I hold doors open for old ladies. I’m a cat person and a dog person.

I just don’t give money to panhandlers. And neither should you.

Mostly Augusta’s panhandlers are downtown – usually on Broad Street, most likely between, say, Fourth and 13th streets. You’ll find a lot of downtown merchants who say panhandlers are a problem.

After a sidewalk shooting wounded six people July 6, the big flashpoint of debate about downtown has been safety. Panhandlers might not be the top priority right now. As a member of the majority that doesn’t want to get shot, I get that.

But safety kind of dovetails into the panhandling issue. When the economy started going sour in 2008, local police noticed panhandlers getting more aggressive. And at a time where local leaders want more consumers visiting Broad Street, aggressive beggars can put a scary face on downtown revival.

Richmond County deputies do the best they can to curtail the problem, but they might have an easier time on a cat-herding detail.

Arresting panhandlers doesn’t completely solve things. They go to court, where they’re usually ordered to pay fines. When they inevitably can’t pay, they’re put in an often-overcrowded and financially overburdened jail.

Then, they’re back on the streets, and the cycle begins anew. Got a dollar?

And where does a panhandler’s money go? In too many cases, to fund the poor lifestyle choices that keeps him panhandling.

There are exceptions. In a disturbing mix of whimsy and body-image issues, a woman in Akron, Ohio, recently put on a black bikini and set up shop at an intersection to panhandle. She’s not hungry or homeless. She wants breast implants – and the single mother/college student/waitress plans to do it until she reaches her goal of $5,000.

At least award her points for honesty. That’s more than I’ve usually heard from local panhandlers. Over time, I have learned at least two of their methods:

Strategy No. 1: Ask for an odd amount of money. It adds weight to a very detailed fake story – a specific sum of cash for a specific purpose.

Strategy No. 2: Use a prop. If your story involves having a flat tire, for example, have an actual flat tire ready in your hip pocket to erase doubt.

I offer two firsthand accounts:

• A slightly disheveled man approached me in one of The Augusta Chronicle’s parking lots. He said he needed $11 (No. 1) to finish paying for a bus ticket to Wilson, N.C., where a job awaited him as a fry cook. I gave him the only dollar bill I had in my wallet.

About a month later, the same slightly disheveled man approached me in another of The Augusta Chronicle’s parking lots. He said he needed $11 to finish paying for a bus ticket to Wilson, N.C., where a job awaited him as a fry cook. I asked him for my dollar back. Recognizing me, he briskly walked in the opposite direction, presumably toward Wilson, N.C.

• This happened in the parking median on Broad Street between the Augusta Museum of History and Luigi’s. A slightly disheveled man carrying an empty gas can (No. 2) asked for $7 (No. 1) to fill his tank just enough to get his truck back to his home in Statesboro.

Now, I grew up in Statesboro. Glance at the back of my hand and you’ll see a map of Statesboro. That’s how well I know it.

“Oh, Statesboro!” I said. “I’m from there. Where do you live?”

This threw him a bit. “Uh ... across from the college.”

That narrows it down to a few thousands houses and apartments. “What street?”

“Uh ... .” At that point he apparently thought the subterfuge was no longer worth it, and he skulked away.

That’s not to say that there aren’t folks out there who genuinely need help. They’re out there, all right. But too often, they’re not the same ones walking downtown asking you for money.

The truly needy gather
at The Master’s Table, Golden Harvest Food Bank’s soup kitchen. They show up at the Salvation Army. They attend New Hope Worship Center’s Bridge Ministry each Saturday under the John C. Calhoun Expressway bridge at 15th Street. They find the Augusta Rescue Mission. Or the Garden City Rescue Mission. Or Mercy Ministries, which runs one of only a handful of homeless day centers nationwide.

Am I leaving any agencies out? Of course I am. There are tons of them in the CSRA, offering just about any level of assistance to folks who genuinely need it – food, shelter, clothing, health care and even help finding a job.

Those charities are the ones you need to be giving your money to. Not the guy with the gas can. Not the guy bound for Wilson, N.C.

And it’s to those charities where these folks need to be guided. If they refuse that help and they simply want money – well, let them go begging.

The next time you find yourself about to drop money into a panhandler’s hand, ask yourself: Is that money really the most compassionate investment in a human being?

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