Every morning on the way to work I pass at least two panhandlers upon entry into Ashland. They are usually male; One a young man, the other much older, both appearing to have full physical capacity. Both dress in jeans and sweatshirt – possibly dirty, maybe just worn – and hold pieces of cardboard upon which requests for help, presumably financial, are handwritten.
As both men set up camp near the end of Interstate 5’s exit 19 off-ramp I’ve come to think of them as “greeters”. I’ve been making the drive to Ashland for a year and a half now which means both gentlemen have become a daily presence in my life. And that’s where the dilemma kicks in. By nature, I am compassionate to a fault. My philosophy has always been that it’s not my place to judge a person’s circumstances, but rather to help a fellow human being whenever possible. So, in my travels throughout the Rogue Valley I have often shared dollar bills, spare change, bagged carrots or apple slices, and even heart-shaped sugar cookies baked as Valentines for co-workers (in the winter months I carry spare pairs of stretchy knit mittens as my heart breaks at the thought of someone being cold). At least one of the Ashland “greeters” has benefited from such offerings on more than one occasion.
But, when does the giving become enough? Undoubtedly by now, the “greeters” are as familiar with my face as I am with theirs. On my part, that familiarity leads to uncomfortable feelings of guilt each time I pass by without offering some sort of help. And the same thoughts echo in my head: Am I wrong to deny them some sort of assistance? What is my responsibility? What is theirs? Do I smile and acknowledge them? What if they don’t smile back? What if they’re offended? I so want to help… but, after seeing these guys day after day for nearly 19 months I have to ponder… what’s keeping them from helping themselves? At what point in my giving, I wonder, do I become a sucker?
I don’t think I’m alone in having such conflicted emotions. I believe most people are at heart generous and compassionate, and that many of us experience the emotional tension created by the desire to respond to a genuine need for help contrasted by the very real possibility of being scammed. Nobody wants to be taken for a ride.
Ultimately, though, I don’t see a resolution to this dilemma. I imagine my brief moment of daily emotional discomfort will continue as long as my commute follows the current route. And I’ll probably give in to the urge to toss a few quarters or piece of fruit to my “greeters” every once in a while, if only to quiet my mind. There are those who would say we should deny all forms of assistance to panhandlers for to give in to their requests is only to enable them. But, I can’t help but return to my value against judging. What do I know of another’s life circumstances? Who am I to decide who’s worthy of charity? When all is said and done, the bottom line is this: If the alternative is to risk failing to help another human being in the event of true need, I’d rather be a sucker.