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Sometimes, 'compassion' does more harm than good

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How should community respond to firm's panhandling concerns?

Saturday, February 9, 2013 - 7:10 am

In most cases, squirrels and birds can survive quite nicely on their own. But lots of people feed them anyway, eager to attract more of the cute critters to the back yard.

But with one company citing panhandling as one of the reasons for its recent decision to leave downtown Fort Wayne after 29 years, and with other officials expressing similar concerns about the practice's impact on efforts to revitalize downtown, it may be time for the community to ask itself a politically incorrect but intrinsically humane question:

When someone asks for money on the street, how can you best help that person and the community at large?

This is hardly a new concern or confined to downtown, of course: Laws against begging have been around for years, and as recently as 2010 City Council debated how Fort Wayne might attract more street performers without also attracting more panhandlers and ended up eliminating many prohibitions against begging. But as I reported earlier this month, the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm had been at 130 W. Main St. since 1984 but moved to a north-side office in part because panhandlers had made many of its clients and employees uncomfortable.

Compared to the level of panhandling in many cities – even Indianapolis – Fort Wayne can barely be said to have a problem at all. “I haven't had any complaints. If it's a problem, I'd like to know about it,” said Bill Brown, President of the Downtown Improvement District. Even so, Merrill Lynch's public comments and similar concerns expressed privately by others do not project the image Fort Wayne desires when millions of dollars are being spent trying to attract more people and businesses downtown.

This is not primarily a law-enforcement issue. Mayor Tom Henry, who said he tried to deal with panhandling as a City Council member, said the city can prohibit panhandling near schools and other public areas but is generally unable to do much because of the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.

So Jeff Krull, executive director of the Allen County Public Library, does what he can, especially at the main branch that for some serves as a daytime shelter. Rules prohibit panhandling and sleeping, and the library recently established a perimeter within which people cannot smoke.

“It's not very attractive, but this is just something you have to deal with in a city our size,” Henry agreed.

But is it? Really? Doesn't genuine compassion require something more than giving a panhandler a buck in the hope that he'll just go away?

Serendipitously, The News-Sentinel's partner in news, WANE-TV, just completed a series on panhandling in Fort Wayne and talked to a man who said many of his fellow panhandlers use money they're given to buy booze or drugs. “One thing we don't want to do is encourage individuals in their addictions issues, the Rescue Mission's Sharon Gerig told WANE. “We want to make sure someone's improving their life . . . focusing on their actual needs, not their wants.”

“Throwing a sandwich to someone in a park is getting redemption on the cheap. What they're doing is enabling people to not seek services,” Sean O'Byrne of the Downtown Council in Kansas City, Mo., told the Associated Press. There, as here, some fear that indiscriminate generosity to panhandlers, the homeless and others is not only harming the individuals supposedly being helped but is having a negative impact on some neighborhoods and business areas.

Even if some people need help despite the seemingly out-of-control government spending on welfare, food stamps, unemployment and “disability” payments, giving cash to a panhandler is almost always a bad idea. “We know many of them move from city to city,” Henry said.

True compassion is intended to help the recipient, not to make donors feel good about their own generosity. I used to give money almost every time I was asked, but stopped when it occurred to me I might be enabling the very behavior responsible for the person's problem in the first place. Now, if someone asks for money, I may direct them to the Rescue Mission or offer to buy them a sandwich. But I reject all requests for “bus fare.”

Brown believes Merrill Lynch's case may be an isolated one, and he may be right. Certainly Krull and Henry seem to agree. But because most people are smarter than squirrels, and might be compelled to seek more meaningful and lasting help elsewhere -- or even do more to help themselves -- saying “no” to panhandlers may be the best thing you could do for them, and the city.

Unless, perhaps, you find a panhandler like the one a friend recently saw in Indianapolis. The sign read: “We both know I'm going to buy booze.”

Such honesty deserves to be rewarded.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at, or call him at 461-8355.