I write this in response to Bill Boegeman’s article on panhandling (“Alms at the exits? A shift in my street-corner strategy,” Dec. 20).
I have been a volunteer in an outreach program in a downtown Minneapolis church for almost 17 years. We provide clothing for men and women, new underwear, and some food and snack bags. Our church works closely with the other downtown congregations to address the needs of the homeless.
Giving alms to a stranger standing by the side of the road with a cardboard sign actually helps to keep these folks on the streets, instead of seeking permanent housing. In doing this, we provide that stranger with a quick “fix” to whatever his or her immediate needs are. Often that need is just to “get high” and they largely do this in unsheltered places — parks, under bridges and in public restrooms, resulting in their passing out somewhere in an unprotected place. They may come to hours later, having been robbed of their clothing, their blanket, their shoes.
They may wind up in the hospital and, after receiving treatment for wounds, they come to one of our churches for help. I have seen people who have lost fingers and toes from frostbite or who have ulcerating sores on their feet from the lack of proper footwear.
I know some of the people who regularly “sign” for handouts. I also know the people who give of their time and energy to help them find housing. One of the organizations that we churches work closely with is St. Stephen’s Street Outreach. It has a team of workers and volunteers who go out on the streets and try to build a relationship with the homeless, helping them find temporary shelter until housing becomes available. You may occasionally see them talking with a person who is signing at the side of the road. They are the “angels” of the streets.
Then there are organizations, such as Alliance Housing, that both rehab homes to provide safe, affordable rooming houses as well as build apartments that are close to transportation, shops and services for the working poor.
My heartfelt request to Boegeman and all who feel a compassionate need to give to the panhandler is that they consider instead giving to St. Stephens, Alliance Housing, the Salvation Army or an organization that is working to address the real needs of those panhandlers. Together, we can ensure that someday no one will have to sleep unsheltered.
Linda Bennett-Graves lives in Minneapolis.