MODESTO — Modestans have a well-earned reputation for generosity. But there's one way in which generosity is causing far more problems than it solves giving to panhandlers.
Our community, like many around the country, is seeing a growing number of people asking for handouts. They approach drivers in shopping center parking lots. They stand in the medians of busy intersections. Some simply hold a sign, but others are asking and some are getting aggressive, even following shoppers to their cars.
A panhandler near Yosemite Boulevard recently struck a woman who refused to hand over money.
Modesto police are concerned that aggressive panhandling could turn into violent panhandling, as it has in several cities. Earlier this month in Los Angeles, a 23-year-old woman was fatally stabbed after pulling out her cell phone and taking a photo of three men who were begging. The incident took place in a popular tourist area.
In April in Long Beach, a panhandler lit a man and his car on fire after the man said no to his plea for money.
We don't mention these incidents to make people afraid of going about their daily business but to suggest an alternative response: Don't encourage panhandlers by giving money to them, even if it's only some change.
"The community is entirely too giving (to panhandlers)," Police Chief Galen Carroll told us. "They feel bad for people. They just don't realize they aren't helping, but they are enabling them."
In nearly every case, no matter what the panhandlers say verbally or on their signs, they are not panhandling for food. They are panhandling for alcohol and drugs, the chief says.
Modesto has a remarkable number of organizations and even a few individuals who provide meals to the homeless and hungry. People could eat seven meals a day if they took advantage of all of the distribution points.
John Wohler is a crime reduction officer for the Modesto Police Department. He rides an off-road motorcycle and goes into parks and other places that police cars can't reach, and he writes far more tickets than the average officer, most of them for nuisance behavior such as panhandling. And his observation should be a wake-up call: Fewer than 1 percent of panhandlers are asking for money for basic needs. They're using it to buy drugs.
Wohler said he has talked to panhandlers who earn $60 to $100 a day begging along the freeway offramps. The more money they get, the more drugs they are able to buy.
People who reach into their pockets or purses for panhandlers probably don't realize some of the long-term consequences:
People with drug and alcohol addictions have more accidents and end up in emergency rooms or the hospitals, often at the expense of taxpayers or consumers with insurance.
Panhandlers who are successful at a location don't disappear; they keep at it.
Panhandlers hurt businesses, making paying customers fearful of going in. Cities with a reputation for having aggressive panhandlers lose tourist dollars.
The police chief considers panhandling a quality-of-life issue and his officers give it more attention than you might expect, considering they have auto thefts, burglaries and gang crimes with which to contend.
Panhandling is something that law-abiding citizens can help reduce. The strategy: Don't give to panhandlers. Politely say no and walk on.
Sometimes we, as humans, feel guilty about walking past someone who appears to be needy. We don't have to apologize. We urge residents to give to one of the many nonprofits and churches that help the homeless. And rather than adding "I'm sorry" to your polite "no," you can say, "I give to The Salvation Army (or the charity you have chosen) and hope you will use their programs to help people in need."
And if you experience a frightening incident with a panhandler, report it to police. An officer probably won't be able to rush right out and make an arrest, but the MPD will be able to identify panhandlers whose behavior is aggressive and could get worse.
Don't feel guilty about people in need or claiming to be in need. Do something, but don't hand them cash. It's not helping.