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Panhandlers: To Give or Not to Give

"Got any spare change?" It's a question New Yorkers and all American city dwellers are accustomed to being asked by the homeless and other "down and outers" on the street. And every person has his or her own way of deciding whether or not to give to these strangers.

A Manhattan construction worker named Fred says he usually decides to reach into his pocket for some cash. "Why not? They deserve it because they don't got no work [sic]. I know how they feel. I feel the same thing when I am out of work. So you gotta help them out."

Not necessarily. Tina Ellis never gives. "If I have to go to work every day, they should also!" she opines.

Noah Kaufman agrees that many beggars could, and should, be working for their money. But ability is only one factor of many he weighs in deciding whether or not to give. "We've been sort of inculcated here in New York with a business ethic that says 'go get a job.' But we also say 'there but for the grace of God go I.'"

Kaufman adds that his decision-making process is complicated by the fact that one cannot know the actual truth of any one beggar's situation. "Maybe they can't work or they are on [mental illness] medication, or off medication. Also, I ask myself 'is it a pay week? Do I have some spare money in my pocket? Do I feel charitable? Have I been charitable recently?' So much depends on my mood."

Mood also plays an important role for subway rider Kristi Wood. She often offers money or food if she senses that a panhandler "deserves" it. But Wood also suspects certain panhandlers lie about their situation to stoke the sympathy that can trigger a cash handout.

"For example, there is this guy I often see on the subway, and he's been doing the same route for about four years," Wood says. "He says he has all these kidney problems and he just got out of the hospital. But after you see him for four years doing the same routine over and over, you kind of think they 'are just out making money off of the working class?' which is disturbing."

When asked how she actually determines whether a particular beggar is deserving, Wood says "I try to do an observation and just pretty much judge them. It's terrible!"

Jane Collin, a retired nurse who lives near Columbia University on Manhattan's Upper West Side, does not give to people who claim to want the money for food, shelter or medicine. She says there are enough social services already available for the truly needy.

"They are using the Columbia neighborhood to panhandle, because it is a ripe liberal community and they get what they want," she says. Collin believes that panhandlers usually don't need money. "And if they do, they need it for drugs or alcohol."

For Jason, drugs or alcohol might be a legitimate expense for the "down and out." "Their life is hard," he says, "and if they want to take the edge off with a drink, it's fine with me."

For Ben Shalvi, an Orthodox Jew, feelings have nothing to do with charitable giving. For him, charity helps fulfill a religious obligation to act righteously, whether one feels compassion or any other emotion, or not. Still, Shalvi believes that if one gives with feelings of joy rather than resentment, the results are more spiritually "positive." But Shalvi and his wife rarely give to panhandlers, preferring instead to give their charity money to organizations where they are certain the money will be effectively and wholesomely used.

As the Christmas holidays — and in New York, the snows of winter — approach, the so-called "season of giving" has begun. That always seems to raise the emotional and financial stakes when street beggars and their potential benefactors cross paths. But the strangers' plea to spare some coins continues year-round, in New York and everywhere in the world. How to respond is a question we must all ask ourselves, when we can spare a moment.