Separating hustlers from homeless

Bob Moos

September 10, 1991|By Bob Moos | Bob Moos,Bob Moos is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

Dallas -- I DUG INTO my pocket and gave a buck to a street person the other day. Does that make me a good Samaritan -- or a sucker?

The disheveled fellow said he was hungry and needed some money for food -- a point that hit home with me since I was walking into a restaurant for lunch when he approached me. From what I could tell, the man seemed to be speaking the truth. He was hollow-eyed and haggard.

Still, my momentary compassion came not without some skepticism. Only a week before, in virtually the same spot, a desperate-looking woman had asked me for a dollar or two. Her car, she explained, had just run out of gas and she needed to get home. I might have believed her.

The only problem was that I had seen and overheard the same woman telling the same tale of woe to someone else a few days earlier. Remembering that, I looked her straight in the eye and, with an indifference that would have made Scrooge proud, I told her I couldn't help.

Actually, I find myself saying that quite often these days. The beggar at the restaurant caught me at a weak moment. Most of the time, when someone on the street or at an intersection asks me for spare change, I keep walking. Or I roll up my car window and look away.

That's pretty hard for a bleeding heart to do. But, more and more, I am concluding that the fellow holding the sign "Will work for food" isn't truly downtrodden but rather a career panhandler trying to capitalize on people's sympathy for the homeless.

Maybe I am wrong to think so. Nonetheless, many other people are reaching the same conclusion. In city after city, the public's attitudes toward street people are hardening. Where empathy once existed, indifference and even intolerance are becoming the rule.

Dallas just recently made aggressive begging a crime. I admit, the law has its quirks: It proposes to slap a fine of up to $500 on a presumably penniless person. But it reflects the public's very real frustration that downtown Dallas is being overrun with panhandlers.

The New York Times reports that other cities are imposing restrictions on street people, too. New York's transit authority has banned beggars in the subways. In Miami, panhandlers who try to wash motorists' car windows at intersections can be thrown in jail.

We are all experiencing what a city official calls "compassion fatigue," and part of that can be attributed to our difficulty in telling the difference between the hustlers and the homeless. We don't mind being charitable; it's just that we don't want our generosity abused.

If I hand a dollar to a gaunt-looking fellow standing outside a restaurant, I would like to be reasonably confident that he will use it to buy himself something to eat. I hate to think that he may have snookered me and will use the money for drugs or a pint of booze.

One city has found a way to address that doubt. Earlier this year, Berkeley, Calif., arranged for residents to buy vouchers that they can give street people instead of cold cash. "Brother, can you spare a dime?" has given way to "Brother, can you spare a voucher?"

Under the Berkeley Cares program, the 25-cent vouchers are available in booklets of four from local merchants and can be redeemed at participating businesses for groceries, laundry .

service and bus transportation. They cannot be used for alcohol or tobacco.

XTC Steve Paskowitz, a spokesman for the city of Berkeley, told me that the pilot program, which had been tested in two areas of the city, had been well-received and would be expanded to other neighborhoods soon, with a non-profit agency assuming the administrative chores.

Not only has the effort discouraged career panhandlers from plying the streets, but it has also encouraged residents to make donations to homeless services. The same businesses that sell the vouchers accept contributions for various social service agencies.

Best of all, Berkeley Cares has brought together groups, such as merchants and advocates for the homeless, who otherwise would be at loggerheads over panhandling. Other cities looking for a way out of this dilemma would do well to consider Berkeley's example.

Maybe with vouchers in hand, we all could feel less suspicious and more compassionate again.

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