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Tough choice: Give to the panhandler or not?

"Excuse me, do you have spare change?"

The question is all too commonplace. The answer is a little more complicated.

As South Florida cities and counties post anti-panhandling signs, beautify popular homeless hangouts to discourage loitering, and encourage charitable giving as an alternative, it's the individual who must decide on the spot: Pull out the wallet or back away?

Individuals like Darwin Phillips, who recently was approached heading into a Burger King. The TV producer and editor was stopping in for a couple of cheeseburgers on the way to his son's soccer game when a man asked for something to eat.

"At first I felt annoyed and angry. I don't even know why. I didn't respond," said Phillips, of Coral Springs. "He walked away disappointed. As I started ordering, I looked back and saw him sitting in a booth looking sad and hungry. Something told me to buy him food, so I ordered an extra burger."

Upon leaving the restaurant, Phillips handed him the burger. The man thanked him with a smile, Phillips said, and yelled out his thanks again outside.

"I am not the type of guy who hands money out on the streets too often," he said. "Every once in a while, I will stop when people ask, and help them. I've had relatives who have been in situations like that. It happens to people. Who am I to judge?"

On the Sun Sentinel's Facebook page, more than 70 readers debated why they gave or looked away when confronted, either on foot or in their cars, by a homeless person. Some were sympathetic, others numb to requests from "the daily beggars."

Lance Shetrompf, of Weston, wrote that he gives money "unless they have obvious track marks or something. What I do is the right thing and gives me the ability to look myself in the mirror.

"What they do with it is their choice, and if they do wrong … that is what they have to live with."

People's reactions depend on a host of factors, including their mood that day and how they view the homeless person in relation to their own lives, according to William Dorfman, psychology professor from Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

"It has more to do with the person who is giving than it does with any objective view of the homeless person," Dorfman said.

People may be more willing to help a homeless person if they believe that person is really destitute, as opposed to a professional beggar, he added.

"The homeless person becomes sort of an ink blot that we project our own fantasies of what is really go on with this person," he said. "We might feel sorry for them, or are they manipulating because they don't want to work? That is all coming from the person who is being approached."

South Florida homeless advocates and denizens offer different approaches: Help them on the spot with cash and food, deny them, or refer them to a local social service agency.

Diana Stanley, the executive director of The Lord's Place shelter in West Palm Beach, is against giving money directly to the homeless.

"Money is not the answer," she said, suggesting that people give a bottle of water or granola bar along with a card for information to a local service agency. "It is the same act of kindness, instead of giving them money."

In that spirit, Palm Beach County launched an awareness campaign two years ago to discourage people from handing out money to panhandlers at local intersections. The monthlong Better Way to Give campaign used public service announcements, as well as signs and posters stating: "It's OK To Say No." Instead, anyone wanting to help was urged to call the 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast help line or donate to groups such as TheHomelessPlan.org.

"You can't change lives at corners," said Marilyn Munoz, executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County. "You are giving them a handout and not giving them a hand up."

Last year, Fort Lauderdale launched a similar ongoing campaign with an image that read "Panhandling: Don't contribute to the problem. Contribute to the solution." The campaign encourages people to donate to local agencies such as Broward Partnership for the Homeless and 2-1-1 First Call for Help of Broward.

Lake Worth resident Nick Manosis, 60, agrees that giving money directly to the homeless doesn't help long term.

"If you give them money, there is a good chance they will buy drugs and/or alcohol. They will always tell you they are hungry," said the executive chef, who has been unemployed for three years. He said he struggles month to month to avoid homelessness himself.

Still, he keeps a stash of Vienna sausages in his Volkswagen Golf.

"It is still sad to see human beings so beaten down by life," he wrote in an email. "I offer a few cans to any homeless people that approach me."

Clearly, there's no clear singular answer on what approach to take, said David Wagner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern Maine who wrote a book last year titled, "Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics, and the Failure of Social Policy."

"It can bring up empathy and sympathy. It could bring up fear. It could bring up anger. A lot depends on how the person is approached," says Wagner, who sometimes gives cash when asked. "There is a piece behind whatever we feel that has to recognize that it could be us one day. Some of the anger could cover some of that."

johnnydiaz@tribune.com or 954-356-4939

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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