Last week’s column describing my conversations with 10 local panhandlers garnered lots of reactions and suggestions for supporting homeless and hungry people. On Facebook, in emails, in person and on local radio, people expressed appreciation for the column, asking appropriate questions and making suggestions for helping panhandlers.

A limitation of my project is that I spoke with only 10 people, and they were people flying signs by themselves. While I talked with three people in the Clark Lane area, I did not talk with any of the group of homeless people who often hang out at the Highway 63/Interstate 70 underpass. I did not see them panhandling, and they were not easily approachable.

For me, the two most important takeaways from my conversations are:

Panhandlers are older and more local than the stereotype of young men “passing through on I-70.”

The lack of familiarity with homeless services despite their need for ID, job assistance and even food.

I don’t take this as a fatal criticism of local homeless service organizations. I recognize that some homeless people, like housed people, would rather go it alone, or they don’t know how to cope with social service organizations. Abuse, rejection and trauma are potential long-lasting reasons.

A few people’s reactions asked if assisting panhandlers is a good idea. Their concern is that helping panhandlers will attract similar people to Columbia, and it would increase panhandlers’ dependence on help rather than encouraging independence. These are reasonable concerns. On the other hand, a little help in a time of need is a mighty tool for improving society and getting people back on their feet. At the same time, let’s increase affordable housing and mental health care with the goal of reducing panhandling. I expect that several of the 10 panhandlers have child care or child support responsibilities.

Ironically, the day after my op-ed was published, I was defrauded by a woman in a grocery store parking lot. She asked me for $20 to pay a locksmith because she had locked her keys and phone in her car. She showed me a car she said was hers and claimed she returned to Columbia to bury her father who had died of COVID-19. She answered all my questions in a persuasive fashion. I helped her out. Two days later, I watched the same woman approach three people at the public library parking lot before I interceded, and she fled the scene. The next day there were at least 25 posts on Facebook describing a similar setup. She might have needed the money, but her story did not add up.

I felt cheated. I felt used. No one likes to be misled out of their financial resources. It happens. I suspect, but I have no evidence, that the dollar volume of fraud by political and social campaigns, and by illegitimate businesses, far exceeds that perpetrated by panhandlers.

Do we really know that all the collections by college students for cancer research or by merchants “rounding up your bill” for conservation or safety campaigns go to its intended use? We trust people to be honest, but we know that humans often lie.

Of the 10 panhandlers I spoke with, I would be surprised if more than two or three were fundamentally lying. I prefer that it be not more than one. One of the 10, a 56-year-old man who had been in prison, told me “there is a lot of fraud out here” and named a frequent panhandler who “gets dropped off at the same traffic island and takes in more than $100 a day.” One rotten apple can spoil the whole pie.

I don’t know how much money most panhandlers take in, but I expect it varies a good deal — some of us are better at sales than others. I revisited one of the 10 panhandlers this week and asked, “Do you get at least $50 most days?” He said, “No sir, not me.” He didn’t know about other guys, but he doubted it.

A frequent response to my column was from people who wanted to help panhandlers but didn’t know how to do so in a safe and effective way. A similar reaction focused on finding alternatives to giving them cash. I met two women the past week who prepare zip-top bags of hygiene products and small items that they distribute to people they see who might need them. Several readers suggested including the names of local homeless resources.

While not this week, several people have told me they have offered panhandlers food or water, only to see it thrown on the ground and hearing, “I don’t want that, I need money.” I imagine if I had talked with 50 panhandlers, rather than 10, I might have received a couple similar reactions.

One reader wrote, “Helping those in need is what we are supposed to do. Sometimes those in need are not who they seem to be. Be it a panhandler on the corner or the person standing next to you in the self-check out line, or sitting next to you at work, in the library, church or ball game. It’s hard to tell.”

I agree. There are many opportunities to help our neighbors. Be selective, do what you can comfortably do. If you think the asker on the street, or in the public library parking lot, is a fraud, nod your head and move on. If you do find a small way to help a neighbor or a stranger, however, you will certainly feel better and you might be the one who makes a difference.

About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

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