To give or not to give is dilemma confronting city pedestrians


December 28, 1990|By Holly Selby

A chill wind whipped the woman's long, brown overcoat against her legs as she scurried along Franklin Street. As she reached the corner, a young man in a blue jacket extended his hand and said, "Got any money?"

Without hesitation, the woman swerved and crossed the street.

A few moments later, she explained, "I don't talk to them. I keep going. I have thought about it and as a woman walking alone . . . I have made a policy decision: I don't look. I don't stop. I go blank. Maybe I should add it's not something I'm happy with."

Behind her, the man, who said he had been out of work for a few months, stood on the corner, shook his head: "It would be nice if she looked at me and said, 'No.' "

To anyone who frequents large cities, requests for money are familiar. Some panhandlers simply ask for a quarter or enough for a sandwich. Some say they need money for a box of Pampers. Some request bus fare. Others are blunt and say they need a drink. And more and more frequently, it seems, women holding children say they need help.

There are no estimates for how many people panhandle (beg for money) in the streets of Baltimore, said Joanne Selinske, director of the mayor's office for homeless services.

The number of homeless is easier to guess: Last year, more than 22,000 people received aid from shelters in the city. But most homeless people don't panhandle and panhandlers aren't necessarily homeless, said Ms. Selinske.

Whatever the exact numbers, the result of so much need "is that everyone on the street becomes a social worker," said Norma Pinette, director of Action for the Homeless, an advocacy organization which raises and distributes money for the homeless.

"Everyone has to adopt a policy. I think some people take the easy way out -- they decide everyone's bad, so they say, 'I'm not going to give money to anyone.' I really think the cases are much more individual than that."

But to many, the answer to the question of whether to give isn'easily found. Some people worry that their money is going to be used for drugs or alcohol, instead of food. Some say they think panhandlers are "making a career out of it." Still others add quickly that they give money anyway. "I certainly know that dilemma," said William Breakey, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who has studied the homeless. "Sometimes I give, sometimes I don't. When I don't, I feel guilty. There is a chance that you're being taken for a ride. But in the last analysis, better to be taken for a ride than let someone go hungry."

But officials in 57 percent of cities surveyed reported noticeably negative turn in public attitudes toward the homeless, according to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

And nine of the 30 cities surveyed have taken action to limit access of the homeless to public facilities. These range from banning panhandlers from New York City subway stations to breaking up camps for the homeless under bridges in Portland, Ore., to outlawing loitering in Charleston, S.C.

Last year, a group of south Baltimore businessmen banded together to rid their neighborhood of panhandlers by posting signs asking passers-by to refuse to give money. "Our customers were uncomfortable. I personally pulled two people off a nice lady who was getting money from the bank machine. They said, 'please, can I have some money?'

"This woman said, 'I will never come here again.' She was verintimidated," said Jules Morstein, a jeweler in the Cross Street Market area and president of the South Baltimore Business Association.

Another Baltimore group, in conjunction with the city, has devised a different solution: Beginning this week, the Downtown Partnership, a non-profit business organization, has begun giving street cards," printed by the city, to member businesses. The inspiration for the card stemmed both from a desire to help the needy and from hearing about people feeling uncomfortable when approached on the street, says Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the group.

The card, which includes addresses and numbers of shelters, soup kitchens, health care and other services, "is for people who want to give something but don't feel 50 cents is the right thing," Ms. Schwartz said. In addition, the city is giving them to police officers and shelter workers.

Group efforts aside, the question of how much and when to give is ever-present for those who walk in the city. And, when questioned, pedestrians in downtown Baltimore explained their choices with reasons ranging from fear to guilt.

One woman, who declined to give her name but said she works for a bank, said fear prevents her from giving: "I'm sorry for them, but I don't like to open my purse on the street."

Others said fear motivated them to give. "Sometimes they look fierce, and I give," said a middle-aged woman who was visiting Baltimore from central Pennsylvania. At other times, giving depends upon "your mood, how fast you're going, if they're old," she said.

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