Certain local issues run in cycles. The last time panhandling came up in a big way was 1999 (I wrote about it on Sept. 29 of that year).

In the ensuing 12 years, this perennially perplexing moral dilemma hasn’t gotten any clearer in my mind. There are more panhandlers now than ever, especially during this economic downturn, and the downtown business association is suggesting we hand out “palm cards” that list contact information for social service agencies. The rationale seems to be that we don’t want to encourage unsightly begging, that giving money to troubled people doesn’t really help them, and there’s always a potential for harassment or criminal behavior.

But what about the moral imperative? The Bible says to give, no questions asked. What you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me, Jesus said.

But how do we tell the difference between the genuinely needy and the imposters? I spotted one of our regular panhandlers at Thornton gas station in Forest Park a few years back filling up his minivan. His family was in the car.

Remember the guy with the mutton-chop sideburns whose head appeared to permanently rest on his shoulder? He used to hobble up and down the Harlem or Austin exit ramps looking pathetic and carrying a sign asking for assistance. Lots of drivers bought it. I was unsure, too, until I found him sipping a cup of coffee and schmoozing with a friend on the old Marion Street mall, his head perfectly upright.

And then there’s Louie. If an Oscar were awarded for outstanding performance by a panhandler, it would go to Louie. A consummate professional, he’s been begging all over our tri-village area for decades, looking so exquisitely forlorn that many have adopted him.

One Oak Parker, in fact, recently wrote to us about his encounter with Louie in the River Forest Town Center. He doesn’t normally give to panhandlers, but Louie looked so authentic, he couldn’t turn him down. This good-hearted Samaritan went out of his way to help and wanted to share how good it made him feel.

We ran an article about Louie in the police blotter about five years back. He’s not dangerous — except when he obstructs traffic on busy streets. Oak Park police arrested him for one such incident and found out he was living with his sister in Melrose Park, doing just fine. Presumably still is. The streets of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park are his office.

When I informed the writer, he understandably felt embarrassed (not to mention angry) about being “taken,” but he’s a compassionate soul who tried to do the right thing. There’s no shame in that. In fact, it’s admirable. The problem is, as Louie has proven over the years, it’s virtually impossible to tell the phonies from the genuinely needy. Professional panhandlers are good at what they do. We’ve all been taken at one time or another.

As a result, I don’t give, but I don’t ignore either. I think it’s important to see who you’re saying no to. I’m polite and courteous with panhandlers I don’t know, but I admit the regulars irritate me. “Excuse me, sir, can I ask you a question?” I’ve been asked that same question by the same panhandlers hundreds of times. They should recognize me by now. The least they could do is give me a knowing smile or a wink when we pass.

On Saturday, Dec. 3, two activists from the Community Renewal Society led a social action training workshop at Unity Temple. I’m told they made a clear distinction between charity and justice, pointing out that we need both. Charity, they said, responds to the effects of injustice whereas working for justice responds to the root causes. Charity without justice, unfortunately, fails to address the conditions that produce the need for charity in the first place.

The ultimate act of charity makes further charity unnecessary — embodied in the old adage: If I give you a fish, you eat for a day. If I teach you to fish, you eat for a lifetime. The former is charity. The latter is justice.

The problem with giving is that it might help for the moment, but not long term. The problem with not giving is that it may lead to a hardening of the heart — becoming desensitized to the plight of our fellow man. A case can be made that in an inherently inhumane economic system like free-market capitalism, being reminded of those who fall through the cracks is the unavoidable consequence of economic inequality. It may be uncomfortable, but it makes us aware.

Knowing that, you may opt to give to everyone because giving is good for us and might be good for the recipients, at least in the short term. Or you can give to no one, hand out the palm cards and donate to the organizations listed there. Or you can do neither and risk hardening your heart.

At this time of year, I never pass a Salvation Army kettle without dropping in some coins or a dollar bill. I feel better about that than giving to panhandlers.

Maybe our many dedicated and deserving local social service agencies should take turns setting up kettles year-round in all our business districts. That would give us an alternative and might generate substantial funding for worthy causes. West Suburban PADS, the Food Pantry of OP-RF, First United Church of Oak Park’s Walk-In Ministry, and Thrive Counseling Center would be the places to start.

If you have a better idea on how to handle panhandling, please send it to me at ktrainor@wjinc.com.

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