Can believers really pass by the beggar?

Panhandling & piety » For clergy and congregants, it's not always an easy call.
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You may consider 18-year-old Tanner Dahl naive. You may even think him a sucker. But the way he sees it, giving a panhandler a few coins, a dollar or a sandwich is the right thing to do.

"Some might not be homeless and not need it, but there is always a chance that they do," says Dahl, a student from California. "It just feels right when you do it."

Dahl was one of two people over the span of 30 minutes to give money to George Donald, a beggar on the south side of the LDS Temple in downtown Salt Lake City on Monday. Thirty-four others passed by him.

Were they stingy or were they wise?

Perhaps there were some of each among those who kept their wallets closed. And surely many felt conflicted.

After all, if your religion, like most, holds that you are to care for the poor, can you really ignore the beggar? What if you suspect he'll get drunk or high with your money?

"Assisting the poor is really a nonnegotiable. It's something our Christian faith requires us to do," says Scott Dodge, deacon at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, a Roman Catholic parish in downtown Salt Lake City. "But there is a lot of ambivalence; particularly when people ask for cash, a lot of red lights go off. You ask yourself, 'Is that really the best way to help?' "

See the man, not the motive

A new campaign to curb panhandling and Salt Lake City's proposed ordinance restricting aggressive panhandling have put the issue back on the table for people of faith.

Aleka DiLauro, operations manager for Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Greek Orthodox church downtown, sees some validity in the planned ordinance, which, among other things, would mean no panhandling within 20 feet of the entrance of a place of religious assembly.

If DiLauro is confronted by a beggar, it is usually as she arrives for or leaves work. She carries no cash, partly so that she can say she has none to share.

"It's really hard," DiLauro says. "There are going to be instances when people have a genuine need, and I would hate to turn them away."

Phil Pugsley, who is LDS, says he often feels ambivalent when he comes across a panhandler. For guidance, the retired lawyer turns to his scriptures, particularly a sermon by King Benjamin recorded in The Book of Mormon.

"When we see people who ask us for help, we are not supposed to look into their motives," says Pugsley, who was downtown Monday in between volunteering stints driving meals to homebound people and seniors to doctor appoints. He dropped $1 into Donald's plastic mug.

Muslims, too, are to refrain from judgment, says Muhammed Mehtar, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake.

The Quran preaches that a person who is legitimately poor must not be turned away, Mehtar says.

While he often gives $1 or $2 to panhandlers, Mehtar says he usually tries to give them something useful, like advice or a loaf of bread.

A Muslim who suspects that a beggar has imprudent plans for the money has to be particularly discerning, he says. "If we point people to evil, we are part of the sin as well. We have to find a way to give them what they need without corrupting them any further."

A desire to not enable addicts is one reason the Rev. Matthew Gilbert encourages parishioners to give to the benevolence fund at Holy Trinity Cathedral instead of to panhandlers.

The priest says the fund often is tapped dry, since the cathedral is across the street from Pioneer Park, where many homeless people congregate.

Gilbert interviews those who seek help and often sends them to a parishioner whose grocery store will keep a tab or to a dentist or a mechanic who will send him the bill. He sometimes buys bus tickets.

"There may be times when you take a chance and give a little bit [of cash]," Gilbert says. "The problem is you don't want to feed a habit."

Helping the poor, he says, is at the heart of being a Christian.

"If we don't look out for our neighbors, who we see, how can we love God, who we don't?"

Act of grace

The Rev. Eun-sang Lee, pastor at First United Methodist Church downtown, gives much the same guidance to his congregation.

"My advice usually is to give to the people, the organizations that know and have the experience in helping individuals in a more wholesome way."

Nonetheless, he tells those who give cash directly to panhandlers that it's not their business to attach strings.

"It's an act of grace and [they should] pray the person uses that money in a grace-filled and wholesome way."

When beggars come to the church, Lee typically gives them Burger King gift cards or tokens. If someone needs a prescription or help with rent, he goes with the person to pay by check.

"One thing we can do is treat that person as a person. We can gently say, 'Sorry, I can't offer you anything,' " Lee says. "Look into their eyes. Respect them as a person."

That's how Dahl, the young student at Brigham Young University's downtown campus, looks at it.

"Most people just walk by. No one even says hello," Dahl says. "To me it's more than just giving them money. It's showing them someone cares."

Dodge, at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, says that's his approach as well.

He doesn't carry cash much anymore, so he often has nothing but attention to share.

"It's important to not act like they're invisible," Dodge says. "I do try to make eye contact, recognize the fact they are there. Acknowledging their humanity is huge."

If he finds people in the cathedral who appear mentally ill, he sits down and urges them to take their medications. If they are hungry, he might take them to the cathedral's Good Samaritan program for a sack lunch.

A good rule of thumb, he says, is this: "If you're going to err, err on the side of generosity."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has "a longstanding record of generous support of community organizations that help the poor and needy," says Scott Trotter, church spokesman. Nonetheless, he says, it is up to individual members to decide how to serve and donate.

'This guy was scamming'

Clergy and employees at churches throughout downtown Salt Lake City have stories about charity abused, of honest work refused, of intimidation and manipulation by would-be beggars.

DiLauro at Holy Trinity Cathedral says she resents those panhandlers who show up in the middle of the night so they can catch worshippers leaving the midnight Easter service.

"You almost feel like if you don't give them some something, you have just wasted the past few hours," she says. Some get obnoxious when refused cash. "I feel almost violated," DiLauro adds.

The Rev. Mike Imperiale, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, say beggars often come to the church when the social-service agencies are closed. That way, he says, they can claim they have no other option for help.

He had two recent encounters that reinforced his view that 10 percent of beggars, at most, have genuine need.

He was coming out of JB's after breakfast when a man asked for $16 to buy a part for his car, which he said had broken down on California Avenue.

Imperiale offered to drive him to the auto-parts store and buy the part. "He walked away from me and you just go, 'This guy was scamming.' "

In September, a man came into the sanctuary one evening after a concert. When Imperiale refused his request for money, the man became belligerent, poking his finger toward Imperiale's chest and snarling, "Next time you sit down to a meal, think of me." The man certainly lacked the spirit of a supplicant.

First Presbyterian gives 10 percent of its budget to missions and ministries, and Imperiale says the best way for Christians to meet their mandate is by working through agencies that serve the poor.

"We live on 20 centuries of [Christian] social-welfare mentality of helping those in need," Imperiale says. "Giving money [directly] is almost always counterproductive or even destructive. You're helping them hurt themselves."

The Downtown Alliance, a business group, launched a campaign this fall discouraging people from giving cash to beggars. Instead, the group encourages donations to agencies that serve the poor.

Both Pugsley, the retired LDS lawyer, and Dodge, the Catholic deacon, agree that's a good idea. But they have reservations.

"If you wait until you donate to the food bank, you may forget to do that," Pugsley says. "When the people are right there, it's an opportunity to be helpful."

Dodge cautions that donations to agencies may allow people to feel they are off the hook for directly helping their fellow man.

It's a good idea, he says, "as long as it doesn't blind you to the fact that there may be a time when someone needs your help."

Tribune photographer Scott Sommerdorf contributed to this story.

City's crackdown

Salt Lake City is crafting a comprehensive ordinance to combat aggressive panhandling. The measure aims to restrict how, when and where individuals can solicit handouts. The proposed rules would bar panhandling within 20 feet of sidewalk cafes, street vendors, ATMs, bus and TRAX stops and people waiting in lines. The draft ordinance, which could go before the City Council by year's end, has drawn criticism from civil libertarians and anti-poverty advocates.