Gordon Monson: What do you do when you meet panhandlers? What should you do?

I’m a beggar. You’re a beggar. We’re all beggars.

You’re driving your car and stop at a red light. On the corner, there’s a woman with shivering hands, dressed in ragged clothes, squinting as she peers at you, looking for all the world as though she’s seen better days and now sees mostly cruel ones. She holds a cardboard sign, asking for help. What do you do?

Think it through. We’ll wait.

Still waiting.

Do you avert your gaze, looking awkwardly away? Do you stare past her as though she doesn’t exist? Do you yell, “Get a job”? Do you glance cynically around for her parked Lexus? Do you tell yourself that she’ll just use any cash for a snort of coke or a swig of tequila? Do you figure there are better ways to help those in need, ignoring the one in that moment right in front of you? Do you hand her a few bucks or some spare fast food on your front seat as she says, “God bless you,” as much to ease your conscience as to ease her suffering?

What do experts say you should do? What does the Good Book say about giving to the poor? What does your personal sense of goodness whisper?

The opinions of that first group seem to diverge. Some say don’t do it; find more meaningful ways to give. Some assert it hurts those doing the asking, delaying their seeking more lasting treatment, aid and motivation. A former panhandler told a British town council, “People who give money think they’re helping, but they’re not. They are supporting drug habits and feeding a dealer’s pocket.” A Nobel Peace Prize winner said, “Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor.”

That’s a singular, cold philosophy. Others say go ahead, it’s OK, but give in other ways, too, every way.

Shawn Clay, pastor and executive director of the Salt Lake City Mission, an outfit that annually helps thousands of people experiencing homelessness and poverty, wrapped his arms around the matter sincerely and succinctly when he said: “Individuals should do whatever they’re led to do.”


What the good pope and the good book say

(Andrew Medichini | AP) Pope Francis arrives to meet the members of the 2023 World Youth Day organizing committee at the Vatican in November 2023. The pope says that "giving something to someone in need is always right."

Pope Francis is of that same mind. Asked a few years ago about giving to beggars, the pontiff said: “Giving something to someone in need is always right,” adding in so many words that it should be done without judgment, with kindness and respect, even if the receiver uses the gift on, say, alcohol, because “tossing money and not looking in [their] eyes is not a Christian way of behaving. … People who worry about how the money might be spent should ask themselves what guilty pleasures they are secretly spending money on. There are many excuses to justify why one does not lend a hand when asked by a person begging on the street.”

I’m not in the habit of quoting scripture in this space, but a number of them back the positions of Clay and Francis, essentially saying to give until the giving is done.

Get a load of these:

Matthew 5:42: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Proverbs 14: 20, 21: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends. Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

1 John 3:17: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

Matthew 25:40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say unto you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

And, finally, for you Book of Mormon adherents, check out these verses:

Mosiah 4:16-19: “...Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.”

Hold on, it gets better: “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor inpart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just — But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done, he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

And better still: “For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend on the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?”


The wisdom of Frank Layden

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Jazz head coach Frank Layden, shown in 2019, shared his philosophy on helping panhandlers.

If you don’t roll that way, you know, believing and reading and following canons of old, perhaps you have your own ideas about what’s the right way to approach those who ask for funds or food on the side of an intersection or panhandle on the street.

Determine it as you will. After a long discussion I once had with former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden, a wise old buzzard, on the topic, this is the way he and now I figure it:

If you have some spare bills or coins in your pocket, and if you can, give it to the one who asks. Yes, he or she could misuse it, as we might see it, but that’s not our call; that’s theirs. Our call is to be generous when and where we can. There definitely will be some abuses of that giving, but try to be kind and show compassion and humanity to those shivering hands, to those eyes that have seen better days but now see too much cruelty.

Nothing wrong with giving in a more organized way, as well.

But to that one needy person on the corner, on the street, you’ve made a small difference to her or him, you’ve acknowledged her or him as a fellow human being.

Maybe you disagree with this point of view, but go ahead and give it a try anyway. And when you do, look the person in the eyes, read that person closely to see how you made her or him feel, see what it makes you see, see how it makes you feel. See if it brushes away a few small bits of the world’s cruelty.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A boy brings a cup a coffee to a panhandler in Salt Lake City in 2019.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Gordon Monson.