What Do You Say To a Panhandler?

It happens often in downtown Knoxville, being approached by a shabbily dressed man with uncombed hair and beard, “Have you got some change? I’m hungry.” or “I need two dollars for some Tylenol.”

I’ll admit I feel irritated at the request, but start digging around to see if I have any change.  Along with being irritated, conflicting feelings arise: We are taught to be kind and to treat others as we want to be treated; we are also taught to stand on our own two feet so why is someone asking me for money? To top it off I get a guilty feeling (Southern women feel guilty about everything.) because I live a better material life than this person.

The last time I was approached on Market Square Mall. I did give the man a dollar.

He then started down the row of benches looking for more givers until the policemen on bikes talked to him and he left.

I wandered down to where Michael Davis, the Vendor Coordinator for The Amplifier, Knoxville’s street paper, had set up for the day. The vendors for this excellent publication are former homeless individuals.

I asked Michael if I should have given the man money. His answer was an immediate “NO” with a vigorous shake of his head.  “I saw you give that guy money. He didn’t want Tylenol; he wanted alcohol. He was selling Amplifiers yesterday, but I fired him after I saw him try to steal a tip from one of the outdoor restaurant tables.”

But how do I know it won’t go for food?  What about the person standing at the interstate exit with a sign asking for help? The woman in the grocery store parking lot wanting money to buy diapers? Or the young kids with their backpacks who need money to get back home?

Again the emphatic shake of his head, “All they want is alcohol or drugs. Most of them know exactly where they can get food or shelter in Knoxville.”

What will I do from now on for the person asking for a handout?

  • Be kind in my refusal to give money.
  • Keep cracker snacks or fruit or water with me so I can offer something.
  • Educate myself on the names, locations and services of professional helping organizations to pass along. 

I need to fit my action to what I believe I should do and leave the panhandler to do the same.

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