By Michael Joe Murphy
“Mouthwash Dave” didn’t earn his nickname because he sought to enhance his oral hygiene.
Dave panhandled on the streets of Orlando, politely asking the kindhearted, one at a time, for 25 cents. When he’d collect four quarters, he’d make a beehive to the nearest Dollar Store to buy a big jug of mouthwash.
He didn’t have money for beer or wine, so he got his fix with an alcohol-based mouthwash.
When panhandlers stop you on a downtown street, do you feel compelled to reach into your pocket to hand over a buck or pocketful change? Or do “will-work-for-food” signs at intersections tug your heartstrings and spur a reflexive hand-out-the-window donation to the beggar?
You might be doing them more harm than good.
Dawn Neff was one of the founding volunteers at Compassion Corner, a “listening ministry” for the homeless in downtown Orlando.
She will never forget meeting “Mouthwash Dave, a “really sweet guy” and gentle spirit, in the autumn of 2001.
Dave had no sooner introduced himself that he convulsed in seizures, trembling and shaking, Neff recalls, and “I’d never seen that before. I called 911.”
Neff sat with Dave in the hospital emergency room, watching in horror when as more intense spasms of pain wracked his body. He was detoxifying.
In the summer of 2000, Orlando banned begging anywhere outside of blue-dotted lines painted on the sidewalk at 25 locations concentrated downtown. But the 3-by-15 foot “panhandling zones” didn’t confine “Mouthwash Dave.”
He wasn’t aggressive. And neither are most casual panhandlers today.
In cities of any size, it’s likely you’ll be approached for a handout.
Before you’re tempted to help someone on the street who seeks money, ask yourself: What’s my motivation? Am I trying to do something immediately to appease the panhandler so he’ll move on and you can get on your way? Or do you want to help in a meaningful way?
Neff, who ministered to the homeless in downtown Orlando for almost 12 years, offers this advice: “Check your motivations. It’s not necessarily bad to give money to the homeless or to panhandlers. But there might be better alternatives for you – and the person you’d like to help.”
According to many studies, most of the homeless suffer from drug abuse, alcoholism or mental retardation. “The last thing you’d want to do is fuel addiction,” Neff says.
Not all panhandlers are homeless. It might be that the person who’s asking for cash needs it for food or medicine or bus fare to get to work.
“If someone at corner looks famished and you can’t stop to chat, consider going to the closest barbecue joint or McDonald’s, buying a sandwich and fries to take back to the panhandler,” Neff says. “Many times it may not be food that they really want, but you’ll be wiser doing that than giving away money.”
If you’re motivated and have the time, Neff says, “Check out ‘the rest of the story,’ particularly if you’ve seen person on the street or you’ve talked before – if you feel confident they’ll do the right thing. If someone just approaches you for some coins, take the time to get to know them. It doesn’t take much to get a conversation started.”
Neff has given money to homeless people in downtown Orlando, “but those handouts have been very seldom. And when I have, I’ve donated to people I’ve really known, who have no dependency issues, who want $2 only to pay for one night’s stay at a homeless center.”
Neff offers one more thought: “Keep in mind that homeless people are prideful, too.”
The same can’t be said for all panhandlers.
Be wary. But also beware making hard-line decisions and adopting a one-approach-fits-all response when you’re asked to help.
Neff stayed with “Mouthwash Dave” throughout his detoxification at the emergency room, as he convulsed in even bigger seizures. A relationship was established.
Dave was a regular visitor among the homeless and the paupers at Compassion Corner for years.
He struggled with alcoholism until he succumbed to cancer.
A decade later, the ranks of men and women without a roof over their heads in downtown Orlando remain.
So do those “blue boxes” painted on sidewalks.
Michael Joe Murphy, a volunteer for the Polis Institute, can be reached at MichaelJoeMurphy@gmail.com. Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.