Giving wisely

The Christmas season has arrived. Throngs of people are already at the malls to get a head start on their gift lists. It’s also the time of year when street-smart con-artists take advantage of holiday guilt so you can expect to see an increase of panhandlers at intersections, freeway off-ramps and anywhere else they can get attention.

Don’t let guilt get hold of your wallet. It’s no surprise that most panhandlers aren’t hungry, or at least don't plan to buy food with their “earnings,” instead spending their gains on alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Outreach workers in New York a few years ago found substance abuse consumed 90 percent of panhandlers’ funds.

Panhandling can be a well-paying job. Last year, the King County Journal wrote about a 45-year-old ex-con who spent several hours a day at a busy off-ramp in Auburn. He estimated he was making about $15 an hour, “$150 if I stay out here all day,” he said. For a 40-hour “work” week, he'd be pulling in $750. In Ashland, Ore., the Associated Press reported on a couple who call themselves “affluent beggars” and say they make $30,000 to $40,000 a year panhandling. They're probably not filing W-2 forms with the IRS.

Panhandling on off-ramps is legal — most local governments have shied away from trying to outlaw the practice, believing it would not withstand a constitutional challenge. “It's a free speech issue,” said a Sheriff's Office spokesman.

Some communities, however, have gotten creative. In Mountlake Terrace, for example, it is now a civil offense for panhandlers to use intimidation or false information. On Mercer Island, city attorneys are looking into how they can modify the existing ordinance about solicitors of all types in order to shield residents while protecting the right of free speech.

This season, instead of giving a few bucks to the guy with the hard-luck cardboard sign, drop it in a Salvation Army kettle or donate a bag of groceries to a food bank.

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