I do not think many people are unaffected by the panhandlers or other unfortunates who appear to be down on their luck who we routinely pass by in Albany. All of us have seen a person roll down their car window and hand out currency or change to someone who is likely to spend it on alcohol or drugs.
I justify my refusal to hand out money by reminding myself that there are good organizations in town that supply food, shelter, and other essentials to people in need and that my money is better spent by supporting these groups. My assumption about how panhandlers might spend any money I give them is based, in part, on experience.
La Grande did not have many panhandlers when I worked there as city manager from 1995 to 2005, but Interstate 84 did bring a few people our way who claimed to be in need of assistance. A person fitting this description walked into my office one day and claimed that his constitutional rights had been violated by our police department when they escorted him out of a university classroom after we received a complaint from a professor. The complainant looked reasonably presentable until he took off his baseball cap and revealed a tattoo of the Zigzag Man (a logo for cigarette papers, usually associated with smoking marijuana) in the middle of his forehead. Mostly as an effort to encourage him to leave, I asked him if $10 would help him on his way to his destination of Albuquerque and cover any damage to his constitutional rights. He accepted my offer with thanks and left City Hall.
I received a call from a city council member who was also in charge of the Union County jail a couple of days after my donation and was asked if I knew a fellow with a tattoo on his forehead. I knew this call represented trouble, but I answered honestly and was told that my visitor had been arrested for shoplifting at a local store. Union County jailers had a policy of confiscating any alcohol that someone who was arrested might be carrying, and my council member told me that their newest inmate was really angry when they flushed his wine down the toilet. It seems the city manager had “purchased” this wine and its possessor was not happy about the jail’s thoughtless disposition of my gift.
Life’s challenges are often difficult, and I have sympathy for anyone who is overcome and unable to organize themselves to maintain mental health, obtain an education, find a job, or otherwise remain productively engaged. I do not have good answers to their problems, except to say that handing money to someone with an alcohol or drug problem is almost certainly a bad idea. I would much rather see limited resources go to helping people get a decent meal, a safe place to sleep, a shower, and medical care than to the local purveyor of fortified wine.
Albany is a community with a heart, where many people genuinely care about the less fortunate and want to do something to help them. I believe our support should go to those who have demonstrated the ability to address basic needs and help others get past the problems that are blighting their lives.