by Matt Kaufman (Boundless Line Blog)

Reporter Lane DeGregory took it to the streets recently, hanging out among the panhandlers of Tampa to see just how they go about their, well, work. Others have gotten headlines (and the occasional movie) out of unusual cases, but DeGregory’s piece is more typical and down-to-earth.

It’s full of colorful stories–panhandlers faking disabilities (wheelchairs and walkers are standard props) and military records (criminal records are more common) and otherwise looking for ways to con their marks. (“Stand on one foot sometimes so drivers will think you’re not drunk; [act like] your eyes are bloodshot because you’ve been crying.”) “Panhandling isn’t just a job. It’s an art,” said one artiste, who tailors his signs to his audience. For older drivers: “Homeless Vet.” For people who look like they party: “Why lie? I need beer,” followed by the punch line: “God bless!”

Ah yes, the ubiquitous “God bless;” variants on that keep popping up. (One man who lives behind a church shows up on Sunday with a sign reading “Got God? Need daily bread.”) Christians are considered especially easy marks. It’s easy to see why. We take seriously all the Bible’s talk of helping the poor.

As we should. But in these cases, we need to think about whether we’re really helping. I’ve known a couple people who offered simple jobs to men with “Will Work for Food” signs: No one ever took them up on the offer. I’ve known others who offered to take panhandlers to restaurants; a few said yes, but most turned down that offer too. They just wanted the cash.

Can we help people like that? Maybe not. Still, there’s a challenge for Christians here: We don’t want to get conned, but we also don’t want to grow callous. Both are dangers I struggle with. Generally (with occasional exceptions), I don’t give to strangers: I give to charities I know and trust. But I have to make sure I don’t harden my heart to panhandlers, even if I won’t hand them my wallet. It’s all too tempting to hold them in contempt, to focus on their sins instead of my own. I have to remind myself that they’re still God’s children, and to pray for them.