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Marin's Roadside Panhandlers

Is there an effective solution?

Photos by Barbara Ries

People who ask for money at intersections and freeway off-ramps make me uncomfortable — and I don’t know why. Do I resent their intrusion into my space while I’m listening to the radio? Do they make me feel guilty? Or do they take my mind in a direction I’d rather not go at that moment?

If I pass them a few dollars, I don’t think it helps long term. I even get upset when a person in the car in front of me hands one of them money. It’s only going to make the problem worse, I tell myself. Yet most of these folks look like they can use the money.

To further this issue, I talked with several roadside panhandlers — and the results were inconclusive. For whatever the reason — mental challenges, drug or alcohol abuse — many had trouble communicating, others were flippant, and one said, “Hey man, it’s good money.” Never did I hear, “I’m out of work; I’ve tried everything and nothing’s working,” or a similar expression of desperate need. (Admittedly, it was not a scientific survey; I had eight brief conversations.)

I also checked on what Marin does to help such people. My conclusion: This county does a lot to help the less fortunate. “Our free dining room is open 365 days a year,” says Christine Paquette, development director at St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin County. “We serve hot breakfasts starting at 6:30, hot lunches at noon and offer a take-away dinner before closing at one in the afternoon.” According to Paquette, about 400 people a day avail themselves of St. Vincent de Paul’s free dining room on B Street in San Rafael.

“Also on weekdays, we operate a Help Desk, where people come in off the street and, hopefully, get their immediate needs met,” Paquette says. By that she means clothing; job counseling; personal hygiene; and directions, even help — which might include bus or train fare ­— with returning to whatever family they may have.

When I asked Paquette about giving money to those standing at off-ramps and intersections, her answer was direct: “You will probably be giving cash to someone we know very well.” In other words, many of these panhandlers are well aware of where in Marin to go for help.

At her suggestion, I’m printing up 3-by-5 cards to give to roadside panhandlers. The cards will read: “If you really want help, these local organizations will help you.” The cards will have St. Vincent de Paul’s location and phone number: 820 B Street, San Rafael, 415.454.3303, along with the names and addresses of other Marin agencies that offer assistance — Ritter Center, Gilead House, Homeward Bound, Novato Human Needs Center and even Image for Success.

 This is one simple solution. Will it help? I honestly don’t know. If you have another idea, let’s hear it. This is an issue that needs to be discussed; hopefully, it can be resolved. That’s my point of view. What’s yours? Email pov@marinmagazine.com.

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