You have seen them yourself at one time or another.  At just about every freeway entrance and exit throughout Cascadia and the rest of North America, you will find them.  Who will we find?  Well, none other than the scruffy-looking man or woman, always looking like they need your handout, and always holding the ubiquitous handmade cardboard sign.

You have seen them.  They are out in all kinds of weather.  They are standing by the side of the road near the stoplight in Seattle and Portland.  You will find them in working-class Salem and in trendy Eugene.  They are not only in big towns like Tacoma and Everett, they are also in the outposts of Medford and Bellingham.  Wherever they are, the message is the same.  You will make life happier for these people if only you can spare a dollar or so for them.

There has been much debate about this group of people.  It is certainly hard to pass up the person with a sad look on their face who looks like, if only you could spare a few dollars, they would have something to eat or a place to stay for the night.  Others take the more honest approach: The cardboard sign simply says “I won’t lie — I’ll spend it on beer”.  Of course they are unsightly.  Of course they are a traffic hazard standing so close to the edge of a busy highway.  Besides, we wonder whether or not we should give them something.  After all, they say they are homeless or hungry or that they simply yearn for the creature comforts that the rest of us have.

I hate to spoil things, but if you look closely, you will see the same faces out there day after day and month after month.  By giving most of these people a handout, we are only keeping them out there on the side of the road, since their livelihood comes from coming out tomorrow and making more money the same way.

I consider myself to be a compassionate person.  I would like to do everything I can to help the disadvantaged people.  But I truly believe that the groups and organizations that are out there to help feed, clothe, and house the homeless and the poor are well equipped to do their job well.  There is usually little excuse for someone truly in need to go wanting.  There are a wide variety of charities, social service agencies, and religious groups ready and willing to help all comers get back on their feet.  We are not lacking for places in our region for the truly needy to get the assistance they need.

It is my understanding that a person can make quite a lot of money by standing at a  busy intersection and looking poor and requesting handouts.  I do not believe for a moment that most of these folks are truly in need of something they cannot get some other way.  I would rather offer my support to an organization who can see to it that my dollar donation is spent on food or shelter or toiletries or blankets or whatever else a needy person might need.  These organizations are better equipped than me to assess what is needed and spend my donation wisely.

It is not that I do not wish to help.  It is simply that I want to see my help spent on a sandwich for this man’s lunch rather than a bottle of beer for the same man.  I believe that this help is best distributed in an appropriate setting, not randomly on the side of the road.

Many people think we should do something to keep these people from begging on the edge of our thoroughfares.  Our courts have granted them the right to stay, despite their precarious placement on the side of the road, on freedom of speech grounds.  I, for one, would not deny them that right.

There is, though, a solution for getting these folks off the side of the road.  There are so many of them out there because it is very profitable to stand out there all day.  If there were not a lot of money to be made doing this, then they would be spending their time doing something else.  And since food and shelter are quite possible to arrange through a variety of channels, in theory, we should not see someone out there for more than a day or two until they could get themselves back on their feet.  So I will have to presume that these folks are making a lot of money on the side of the road, and a lot of it is being spent on goods that you can’t get at the food bank or the clothing charity — things like alcohol and drugs.

OK, so there are a few honestly needy people out there.  But the vast majority of them are not what they seem.  Why are they still out there?  Because we keep tossing them money.  If you want them gone, please stop tossing them money.   You will help more truly needy people by offering the same money to a charity that assists the homeless.  They will not only help the needy, they will keep them off the streets.

Please do not confuse these folks begging at our major intersections with the needy.  Please donate to groups that help the needy.  This will help someone much more than throwing a dollar to the beggar on the street.