Mero Moment: Are We Not All Beggars?

This week I want to talk about panhandlers. A typical work day for me begins with a trip to McDonald’s near my office where I pick up a cup of oatmeal. Inevitably, as I leave its parking lot, there’s a person at the exit with a sign asking for money. Best I can tell it’s the same couple of guys who rotate through that spot. Never have I stopped to give them money.

As I head out of the McDonald’s parking lot and turn the corner toward my office I have to drive by Salt Lake’s famous Pioneer Park. I call it “Needle Park.” It’s where a bunch of crime occurs and where a lot of homeless people congregate. To its credit, the city has tried hard to mainstream the park and make it more accessible to the broader public. Frankly, it’s difficult to walk anywhere around our office neighborhood without being asked by a stranger for money.

I’m a Latter-day Saint and as I pass by these beggars, rejecting their pleas, I’m constantly reminded of a verse of scripture that reads, “For behold, are we not all beggars?” So why do I reject their pleas?

Let me first say that I don’t always reject their advances. Sometimes I give them money. Sometimes there’s something about the person that just touches me. Maybe it’s more about me and my ability to be touched than it is the other person; I don’t know. But, more often than not, I don’t meet the hand of the beggar. So, again, I ask why?

Part of the reason surely relates to my understanding of the vast network of social services that exist in Salt Lake City. Anyone can be fed, clothed and sheltered at just about any moment of need. The city, indeed the entire state, is remarkable in its charity and its efforts through state and local government to help our neighbors in need. And so I tell myself that it’s best to encourage these souls to use the social services provided. It’s the orderly and efficient way to handle these matters. These available services, whether private or public, also create important touch points for the homeless and society. Frankly, I think it’s important for those in need to be known by the community that cares for them. I’m pretty sure unaccountable “drifters” aren’t the most trustworthy people.

I also sense that many of these panhandlers are fully able to work. They look healthy enough, even if they’re a bit dirty and disheveled. I often look at the ones as I exit McDonald’s and think they’re no more handicapped in employment opportunities than the language-challenged servers who hand me my oatmeal.

Then again, perhaps the panhandlers have criminal records which prevent them from a decent job – and perhaps we ought to review those sorts of laws that create stumbling blocks for otherwise productive citizens?

For me I think the decision to give a handout or not is a matter of human dignity. I give when I think I’m lifting someone’s dignity. I know, in those cases, that I’m certainly lifting my dignity. But there are many other times when I think the panhandler is an offense to human dignity. Those are the times I don’t give. I hate feeling like I’m their judge, but I hate being put in the position of judging them – and the panhandler knows full well that’s how many of us feel as we choose the easy way out and throw some money their way.

When push comes to shove I tell myself this is why I pay tithing and taxes – to help my neighbors in need – and if someone is truly in need, there’s more than one solution to their problems in a community that prides itself on taking care of the beggar. It’s the way we beggars stick together.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.