Bypass the panhandlers to help those in need

Panhandling has always been part of the urban landscape and now is a prominent feature of highway exits.

Does the increased presence or awareness of panhandlers signal the beginning of urban decay or is it a slice of metropolitan life? Scientific data on the matter doesn't exist. It probably wouldn't help much.

Our view is this: Panhandling may be considered work by those doing it, but it isn't. It isn't even sustainable. Passers-by making the quick choice of giving or not giving should give the money directly to a social-service agency instead of the panhandler.

Steep budget cuts have challenged the state Department of Social and Health Services and the nonprofit agencies that help the poor and homeless. Feel the need to do something? Drop your check or spare change at the nearest private social-service agency.

Options exist for those in tough circumstances. The hungry qualify for food stamps. An electronic benefit transfer card can be used to purchase restaurant meals. Soup kitchens take the card, as do a few restaurants devoted to feeding the needy — for example, the Boomtown Cafe in downtown Seattle.

Among the more compelling signs waved by panhandlers are those claiming to need food for hungry children. Poor parents should turn to the state for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants. Single people who are prevented by disability from working are eligible for $339 a month in general assistance grants. The homeless job-seeker can get an address in the form of a mail box from DSHS.

This system is neither perfect nor generous. Funds for general assistance have declined, from $100 million in the 1997-99 biennium to $98 million this past biennium. It is possible to spend twice as much and still not address the need.

But a safety net exists. If public charity is to be directed anywhere, it ought to be toward preserving this net.

Public assistance has appropriately moved from relief for anyone to aid tied to self-improvement. Some complain this switch requires people to work or participate in religious services or substance-abuse treatment. A small number avoid such commitments, preferring to take their chances on the streets. That is their choice.

The smartest choice for citizens is bypassing panhandlers and targeting resources to social-service agencies that know best how to help.