It seems the face of begging in our fair city has changed.
It is not unusual for me to see one or maybe two homeless people asking for help as I exit the grocery store or head downtown for a dinner out. All my life I have seen beggars with dirty faces and grimy coats sitting dejectedly with a cardboard sign reading, "Homeless. God bless." The entirety of their belongings are usually piled in a shopping cart or tied to a sleeping bag nearby.
As I drove around on a few errands yesterday though, I saw five different panhandlers. That number alone was a little surprising. What I found shocking enough to keep thinking about it today is that not one of those people fit the description above.
No one had piles of belongings, let alone a coat on the ground beside them. Were these fair-weather beggars? Did they wait for warm temperatures before leaving their house to try their luck on the street? Three of the beggars fit the dirty description, wearing old T-shirts and ratty jeans. I did notice a grocery sack and a Super Big Gulp resting beside one man. (It's a good thing this isn't New York. That man could have lost his last soda!) >Sorry. I couldn't resist one snide remark.<
The one thing all five beggars had in common was the cardboard sign. But not one of their signs tweeted a story of an injured vet, a wandering traveler, or simple homelessness.
There was one young man who looked like a UVU student. (I would have guessed BYU, except for his beard.) He was clean cut and dressed like any of the other 65,000 students in our area. The only thing to set him apart from his classmates was the cardboard sign he held asking for money.
Then there was the man who looked to be about my age and about my economic status. With his ball cap, sunglasses, and ear buds, I would have guessed that he just walked out of a sporting event. The only indication that he needed money was his sign. It read, "Obama gave me this job!" He saw me glance at his sign and then look away as I waited in my van at a stop light. When his clever Obama tactic didn't work, he flipped the cardboard over and nonchalantly waved it to catch my attention. The reverse side read, "Down on my luck. Could use some green." Cute. A beggar using the holiday for his appeal.
Like I said, these people have been in my head ever since.
My initial reaction was that they all seemed to be able bodied. Why couldn't they go out and beg for a job? What happened to the signs that read "Will work for food"? Maybe Elizabeth Smart's story ruined that tactic in Utah. Still, I actually found myself getting angry when the driver of a car in front of me handed some bills to one of these guys, followed by a pedestrian who went out of his way to hand the same guy all his spare change before crossing back to the sidewalk he had been treading. I had hoped that someone would direct that man and his colleagues to the Food and Care Coalition, which was an easy walk away. I've toured their facility where they provide food to any who come in, free rooms, haircuts, and job leads to homeless people.
I remembered that my tour of their facility had also consisted of a bit of education about homelessness, including the fact that most homeless people struggle with drug addiction or mental illness. I have no way of knowing if the able-bodied men and women I saw yesterday face those devils in their lives.
Surely, though, the man with the ear buds could have found a job. His clever signs, citing the bane of most voters in this county, and referencing the current holiday for those who turned out to be Democrat, indicated some level of education. I found myself wondering why he hadn't sold whatever device his ear buds were plugged into before humiliating himself with begging on the street. Did he have a family and a house and had possibly run out of unemployment checks? Why didn't he simply respond to one of the several Help Wanted signs I saw in my errands yesterday? Was he hoping that someone would recognize his wit and offer him something better?
Joseph Smith, as quoted by Hugh Nibley in Approaching Zion, said, "It is better to feed ten impostors than to run the risk of turning away one honest petition." I've long believed this as a true principle. I can't judge others as I don't know their circumstance. All I know is they want my help. But I admit that last year when I offered the leftovers of a restaurant meal that I couldn't finish to a beggar in Salt Lake City, it really bugged me that he turned me down and said he didn't want my food.
So while it might be good to feed impostors, is there a better approach? I appreciate Provo City's stance that panhandling is not a good answer, and that responding with spare change doesn't help the problem for the beggar in the long run. I like the signs posted downtown by the Community Resource Officers (see above), and often wish that I had business cards with the address to the Food and Care Coalition and the phone number for the United Way. That is one hand out I would actively give.
What's your answer?