"Hey, my old lady's bleeding. Can you give me a few bucks so I can buy her some tampons?"
That's the best panhandling line I've heard during the two years that I've lived in the Central Hillside of Duluth. It made me actually consider giving money away on the street. I ultimately decided not to because the last thing a person should do is develop a philanthropic reputation in this neighborhood. If I had a dollar for every guy who has asked me for a dollar, I'd have enough money to move to Lakeside.
I have developed a few simple guidelines for avoiding panhandlers over the years. First of all, I recommend having a standard response for them that is well rehearsed. Mine is, "Sorry, I can't help you." If you don't have a standard line and have to stop to think, it can appear like you are considering making a donation. The most important thing to do is to keep moving and never stop and engage.
I also recommend projecting bogus politeness and creating the perception that you would love to help, but you don't have any money. That should help keep you out of any irate confrontations.
Whatever you do, avoid attempting to humiliate panhandlers. Remember, whether they are legitimately trying to feed themselves or just looking to get drunk, they don't like asking you for money. Don't play games with them like the ol' "Preemptive Strike," where you see them coming and go on the attack by unexpectedly asking them for money first.
The most important thing for you to keep in mind is that if you are on the edge of poverty, but still keeping a roof over your head and food on your plate, you better be on guard. You are the first rung on a ladder that many people are desperate to climb.
The truly destitute are not Robin Hoods. They don't have the means to beg and steal from the wealthy. As the disparity of incomes continues to widen in the United States, the battle lines will not be drawn between the rich and the poor, but rather between the poor and the poorer. Only the paranoid shall survive.
Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is paul [at] geekprom.com.