Decision to give, or not, can be deeply personal

As panhandlers become an increasingly common sight outside of downtown Portland, more Mainers are left with the sometimes difficult decision of what to do as they walk or drive by.

Do you pass a dollar and hope it really helps? Decide instead to make a donation to a social services agency? Or maybe turn your head and look the other way?

Experts say it’s an individual decision that people will have to grapple with for years to come.

David Wagner, a University of Southern Maine professor and national expert on poverty and homelessness, said people are often scared by panhandling and other visible signs of poverty. Seeing panhandlers can induce feelings of guilt, empathy and anger in passers-by, he said.

"The anger may be an emotion that stems from fear that, in fact, it could be us one day," he said.

Instead of confronting the fear that they could be in the same position someday, some people "focus on what is apparently wrong with the person they see," Wagner said.

Mark Swann, who serves as director of the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, one of the city’s largest shelters, knows firsthand some of the sad and desperate stories that have forced panhandlers onto city street corners and intersections begging for food, jobs or money.

But Swann says how the public interacts with those souls — often seen holding signs asking for help because they have lost their homes or jobs — is "a very compelling personal and spiritual question."

"You need to make that decision on your own," Swann said.

"I think it’s a very personal experience to be sitting in traffic in your car and there is another human being standing there 5 feet away from you in a desperate situation," he said. "It makes you start thinking about your values and your personal and spiritual core."

It’s a dilemma that people face across the country as unemployment, poverty and homelessness all remain higher than they were before the economic crash more than four years ago.

One Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, for example, has made "resource bags" for people to give to panhandlers they pass. The bags contain energy bars, water bottles and socks and other items, but no cash.

Swann said he and his staff at Preble Street are prohibited from giving money to a panhandler in Portland because it would violate their social worker/client relationship.

But, if he is in a city such as Boston or Washington, Swann said he would not hesitate to help someone out, whether it be by handing them a dollar bill or directing them to a nearby shelter.

Wagner, who recently wrote "Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics and the Failure of Social Policy," said he doesn’t always give money to panhandlers. "I do not think it’s the most important thing to do," he said. Instead, he works on poverty issues and tries to help fix the root causes.

Wagner said few homeless people he knows engage in panhandling, and he believes there are people who are not homeless who "do quite well" asking strangers for money.

"I think the real issue is why we as a supposed advanced society cannot really take care of our people," he said. "It should not be up to passers-by to do this, but to government, which has abdicated its responsibility."

Kathryn Davis, president and CEO of United Way of York County, said she gives to panhandlers when she is carrying cash, but also helps out by donating to organizations that "really know how to provide services" to help people struggling with homelessness and poverty. Some people may prefer such donations to be sure they are not helping someone pay for cigarettes or alcohol.

However, when she does hand cash to a panhandler, Davis said she does so without worrying about how the money will be spent.

"I’m delighted to find opportunities where I can share the abundance in my life with others," she said. "You never know what’s going to happen when you do something good. I figure if someone is asking for help, they probably need it, however that’s defined."

Swann’s advice to motorists who pass by a panhandler in Portland is simple: Make eye contact, even say hello to the person, and if you feel comfortable offer the person a donation, but do it "unconditionally."

"Doing it without passing judgment … that’s the charitable and spiritual side of these encounters," he said. "Poverty is not invisible. It should challenge us and make us squirm a little."

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted by phone at 791-6315, by email at or on Twitter at grahamgillian.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at;