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Begging the question: Does giving money to panhandlers help or hurt?

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Billboards are up in downtown Minneapolis that ask people to give money to an organization that helps the homeless rather than to individual panhandlers.

The Star Tribune reports the Give Real Change campaign generates money for the Family Housing Fund, which distributes money to shelters and other aid organizations in Minneapolis.

“Everyone agrees, five bucks on the street is just going to perpetuate a life circumstance that is not conducive to long-term health,” said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “That five dollars would be better invested in longer-term solutions to deal with the root cause of someone’s homelessness.”

Social workers and advocates for the homeless have long cautioned donors about handing money to people with cardboard signs.

A story The Atlantic acknowledged panhandling can bring in cash, "but since panhandlers often have no way to save their money, they're incentivized to spend most of their day's earnings quickly. This creates a tendency to spend on short-term relief, rather than long-term needs, which can feed this dependency on alcoholic relief."

The PracticalEthics blog adds that "for every dollar that we give to a beggar, the more lucrative we make begging and, comparatively, the less lucrative we make working. This is bad, for we want people to work, not beg."

Kevin Barbieux, who blogs as The Homeless Guy, offers this frank assessment: "Why do they beg or panhandle? Drugs. It sounds too easy to be true. Sorry, it's all about the Drugs. Even when they are honestly asking for help with food, or their electric bill, or diapers, it's because they've spent all their money on Drugs."

According to a story published last October in the San Francisco Gate, there's more to it. The newspaper reported 500 property owners in downtown San Francisco hired a research firm that surveyed 146 panhandlers over a two-day period last March. The study concluded that the typical panhandler is a disabled, middle-aged, single male who is a racial minority.

The survey found that 82 percent of those asking for money were homeless. In addition, it said 94 percent of them said they used the money they raised for food and 44 percent admitted using it for drugs or alcohol.

Researchers also spoke with 400 people who handed money to panhandlers. They found that the largest group of givers were young working-class Bay Area residents. Empathy was a main driver; three in five said they donated “because they or a family member may be in need someday.”

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