It’s a common dilemma for downtown workers, shoppers and tourists.
A request for money, whether made verbally or silently by the presence of a cap, inspires passersby to dig deep, look the other way, or some response in between.
According to those in the social-service industry, the correct response is a personal choice. But they make one caveat.
“Always be polite,” said Kathy Stinson, executive director of the Cool Aid Society. “Make eye contact, smile … treat them like a human being.”
If giving money isn’t your style, one option is to say, “No, I’m giving directly to a charity,” Stinson said.
Karyn French, executive director of Pacifica Housing, doesn’t give change.
“I’d rather give my money to a busker,” she said. But that doesn’t mean she offers nothing to the panhandlers.
“Sometimes I’ll walk by and do the head nod,” she said. Oftentimes, however, she’ll pull a fruit leather or other treat from her purse to share.
“Personally, I’m way more comfortable giving an apple,” French added.
A quick poll of some of the downtown regulars reveals an offer of food, along with a “how are you?” gets a polite response at the very least, and typically an outpouring of gratitude. An offer of a Subway sandwich, an apple or granola bar inspired smiles, handshakes, and many thanks: “God Bless!” “You’re beautiful!” and “cool,” among them.
But homeless advocate Rose Henry, who has herself struggled with poverty, has a different take on the interaction.
“Way too often the poor and homeless get painted with the same brush of negativity. Everyone seems to (think) that when a beggar is out panhandling that it is for drugs and alcohol,” she wrote in an email to the News. “Very few will broadcast that they are without under garments (panties/ socks/ bra).”
She recommends handing out bus tickets or gift certificates in small denominations.
The key, Henry explained, is choice.
“This gives the recipient the freedom to pick what they want.”
A woman in a wheelchair stationed on Douglas Street, holding a coffee cup to collect coins, helped crystalize this lesson.
When offered a snack, she smiled to reveal a mouth full of gums.
“I don’t have any teeth, but I appreciate the thought,” she replied.
Another man a block away also refused, explaining he can’t eat sugar as a diabetic.
While refusing to give his name, he is keen to open his backpack to reveal a portable camp stove he uses to cook his food under a bridge where he sleeps at night.
A replacement propane tank costs $11.20, he explained, as he gladly accepts a loonie toward its purchase.
“The panhandler has a need that has not been met in any other way,” said Henry. “They are craving something, whether it is food or something to numb the pain of the coldness or hunger pangs. The giver thinks that they can tell the panhandler how to spend the money which takes away the rights of all Canadians to have the sense of freedom to choose.”