In the past, I’ve read advice on how to respond to panhandlers, but I wanted to check what a local expert would say. I called Community Action House and talked with Melissa Roessing. CAH’s way of working with people on the margins is decidedly deeper than what a motorist can do. Their Community Kitchen acts as a great place to check in with clients and be warm and invitational to others who aren’t yet using any of their programs. Initial inquiries center around food, clothing and housing. If those needs are satisfied, inquiries continue as to what other barriers people face.
For the motorist who can engage:
1. Supply information about food pantries and clothing. If you keep seeing panhandlers in a certain spot, learn where those resources are nearby. Make sure to mention that Community Kitchen serves lunch seven days a week at Hope College’s Western Theological Seminary. Call one of these main players if you need help in giving advice.
Community Action House: 616-392-2368
Good Samaritan Ministries: 616-392-7159 After Hours Emergency 24/7 dial 211
Salvation Army: 616-392-4461
2. Encourage the panhandler to go to one of the above service providers and do an intake interview so social workers can better understand their needs and begin to assist.
3. Start carrying snacks in the car. You can provide nutrition and energy on the spot.
4. Cash is a challenge. Will it be used for alcohol or drugs? Cash enough for a meal would be reasonable. We are not in a position to know or to judge. We’re not in a position to know if the panhandler is honest or not.
5. Honest panhandlers are evidence of homelessness while the absence of panhandlers doesn’t mean that there isn’t homelessness in our community. Homelessness takes many forms. We don’t usually run into those who are couch surfing, sleeping in their cars, tents, or in the woods. (From the first person I interviewed about poverty, I was told that there were three tent cities in Holland, all out of sight.)