Panhandling puts a face on poverty, and turning away from haggard individuals holding a cardboard sign can be difficult. People want to help, and that is even more the case in Spokane, where people take great pride in the giving that keeps the doors open at many charitable institutions working to alleviate illness, malnutrition and hopelessness.
Many in Spokane give because they are one or two steps away from homelessness, and can identify with the faces they see and the signs they read.
But handing out spare change, or the loose dollar bill, to someone whose sign says “Anything helps” makes as much sense as voting for Candidate X in an election. Would you cast a vote without knowing who that person is, and what he or she is going to do with your money?
The city of Spokane has pushed many panhandlers out of the downtown core, and enacted other measures to discourage the activity. Preserving the vitality of an urban environment and making the streets and sidewalks as inviting as possible are essential to attracting visitors and stimulating more investment.
But there is genuine need out there. The new “Give Real Change” campaign sponsored by the Downtown Spokane Partnership and city responds to that need, at the same time assuring that Panhandler X is not turning dollars into six-packs or, as some claim, their next mortgage payment.
Unfortunately, giving money to a panhandler is often the easy thing to do. Institutional charities are not really set up to take small contributions at, say, the intersection at Fourth Avenue, where panhandlers frequently bracket the intersection with Cedar Street. Those dollars would add up for the House of Charity or Spokane Food Bank, and do as much good or more.
Give Real Change will help get that message into the community. But encouraging residents to see the bigger picture is only one-half the task. The other half is providing a way to get dollar bills that might be stashed in the ash tray, within easy reach of the driver or passenger, to a charitable cause instead.
The DSP is providing one way: a link to www.downtownspokane.org/ real-change-spokane.php, where those stimulated to give while sitting at the light on Cedar, or anywhere else, can make a small donation on their phone – still at the light! – and know where it is going.
Other communities are trying small boxes in-car drivers can toss their change, and not to a panhandler. Some are converting a few parking meters into donation collectors.
Give Real Change will evolve as better ideas come forward.
Panhandling, low-cost and feel-good, will endure. Those who really want to help their community should take a second to think of the children, the sick and the elderly who are not curbside before parting with their change. “Anything helps” works for them, too.