A helping hand with a business card might beat a handout for some

I haven't seen an "I Will Work for Food" sign lately, which could mean any one of four things:

a) The people holding those signs were getting too many undesirable job offers.
b) Panhandlers dislike cliches as much as anybody.
c) They don't really want food; they want money.
d) The lexicon of panhandling has evolved to favor the more direct approach - the verbless label sign: "Unemployed, Homeless Veteran" or "Hungry Mother of Three," or "Out of Work Disabled Father."

What would Jesus do? Picture this scenario: Exiting from a freeway in his 20-year-old Volkswagen minibus, Jesus stops for a red light at a surface-road intersection, and notices a disheveled sign-holder standing just a couple of yards from his side-view window, advertising dire need, asking for any help. Jesus would give the sign-holder His business card, right? Well, maybe not, but Patrick Patterson would.

Patterson is executive vice president of Volunteers of America Michigan, and an incurable do-gooder by nature. I know this because when I was writing a daily column for the Lansing State Journal I wandered occasionally into do-gooder territory, where I frequently crossed paths with Patterson. I liked him because, unlike many do-gooders, he never took himself too seriously. He had a healthy sense of humor about the VOA's mission. He harbored no illusions about the nature of his clientele, yet went about his business with enthusiasm and compassion.

Patterson has given a lot of thought to the sign-holders. A recent letter from Patterson to me, and others, begins: "It's a question I hear all the time: 'What should I do when I pass one of those guys on the street corner with the cardboard signs begging for money?'"

Maybe you've asked yourself the same question. I have, and my answer always is: "Nothing."

Can a person be reasonably certain that few bucks passed through an open car window will be spent on food, and not crack, or wine, or lottery tickets? Of course not. So, does the possibility that our donations might do more harm than good give us a license to keep our car window closed and ignore the beggars?

As you might suspect, Patterson doesn't think so. "My experience," he wrote, "shows that begging often comes from a genuine, desperate need. Even the drinkers usually have significant challenges, revealed once we build a relationship."

Patterson acknowledges, however, that dollars dispensed by passing motorists will do nothing to address those challenges. Hence, Patterson's new approach: the VOA business card. The cards declare "We want to help," and list all of VOA's offerings: "a safe place to sleep," "hot, nutritious meals," "showers," "eviction assistance," etc. The cards also include a map to the VOA offices, the phone number, the hours of operation, and even instructions regarding bus routes to the shelter.

The cards are available to anyone who wants them. Patterson wants us to pass them out to street beggars – the ones with signs and the ones who approach us directly. Yes, he knows that many of the cards won't make it as far as the nearest trash can, but he prefers to dwell on the possibility that one or two might land on fertile ground, and that a life will be saved.

"This just might click with somebody's heart," Patterson told me in a recent interview. That's the way he thinks.

He added: "We've had miraculous stories from this kind of outreach. We've seen some miraculous changes."

As usual, VOA has no money to fund this current outreach effort. It's a volunteer effort.

The reaction of panhandlers so far to the business cards?

"All kinds," Patterson said. "Sometimes they start a conversation."

And sometimes they don't. Patterson knows as well as anybody that the miracles are few and far between, but searching for them is both his profession and his hobby.

He wrote: "We routinely save folks who have been deemed hopeless. Their recovery against all odds continues to inspire me."

During our interview Patterson added: "I feel we have an obligation to make the effort. These people are still our brothers and sisters."

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 08/22/2014 - 9:53pm
Homeless shelters in the Lansing area have a reputation for offering better services than in such places as Detroit and Grand Rapids and they are seeing an increase of people to Lansing from those areas, a homeless shelter in I believe it was Grand Rapids are dropping people off in Lansing because of this. They are not turned away even though they are from outside the area, around 1/3 are not from the Lansing area.
John Schneider
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:40pm
That sounds like an urban legend to me, ***.
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 10:55am
Wonderful article, John! Being on such a limited budget myself, I hate sitting at those corners with my windows closed trying to avoid eye contact with beggars because I worry my money will cause more harm than good. I will be doing this from now on, and will hopefully help someone who needs it. Pat Patterson sounds like such an amazing person. Thank you to you both.
John Schneider
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:41pm
Patterson is, inded, fighting the good fight, Lexi.
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 6:03pm
I believe that these panhandlers work for someone who gives them a place to stay & a percentage of their daily take. They have been offered shelter & food from the Lansing Rescue people and have rarely taken them up. Watch in the evening when they leave their spot. Does someone pick them up with other homeless people in the car ? I believe it is all a big scam and should be investigated by the police. Don't give them a dime - tell them to go to the Lansing Rescue Mission at Michigan and Larch. Bet they just stay there and don't go get the help they pretend to need.
John Schneider
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:42pm
I smell another U.L., Richard.
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 7:24pm
Unforunately those people that we see on the street corners for the most part are victims in some respect that are hired to do this job, paid little, and work for the most part for national syndicates. It matters not where you go in this country, the "homemade" signs are the same, the placement of people is the same, and the money you give so thoughtfully will rarely if ever go to the cause that is presented. Volunteers of America is a great, great cause and if we all wish to first of all contribute to an organization who truely supports those who are homeless, out of work, having histories of alchool and abuse of drugs, let's support those agencies that work so diligently every single day, holidays included. Second, I would be very shocked to see anyone on those street corners ever take the cards and go to VOA but a TERRIFIC idea. One way to suspect not all is being told.....look at their tennis shoes. Thanks Mr. Patterson for all that work you do every single day and all others who support this.
Thu, 08/28/2014 - 3:44pm
Thank you for your kind words. I am just one of many here at Volunteers of America. Shoes, cell phones, clothing may not be indicators of well-bieng. The most common phone a homeless person has is the "burner" with a pre-paid plan. We're a fortunate society with lots of wealth. The biggest problem in American poverty is often isolation. We often get brand-new items donated that have not been used. All this complexity gets down to time and relationship. You really can't be certain without it which is why we offered these cards. It often takes both to help a deeply impoverished person. Meeting someone at an off ramp affords little time for any meaningful interaction and of course, as our mother's told us, "be wary of strangers," another reason it can be best served to the trained and equipped agency professional. I must confess that I do give direct as well as give out the card. I never give a lot. About a third of my stops have been to people I know from VOA. Even with lots of experience, I'm often confounded with what to do. Jesus didn't lend the detail here so I often base it on how much I spent on lunch. The other point, I'd like to make is that some beggars still value their independence and are not homeless. Bless you for your concern. As you can see from my previous post, I'm surprised again to see a twenty percent rise in number served from last year. This recovery isn't raising all boats yet. I sure hope it does soon.
Thu, 08/28/2014 - 3:21pm
Homeless Migration A reporter posed this question to me and it was contrary to my experience. But the media need sound facts, so I pulled a data abstract from our client data base system. Although we saw an alarming increase in those served, 5,155 for our fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, the percentage from outside the tri-county area remains 5 percent. No responsible provider would ship a homeless person without a referral first. Simple fact is we often have no space available. It's difficult enough to navigate for help if you're local. Lastly, homeless people usually have little to no income for the cost. Bear in mind that homeless services are most often provided in urban core areas with higher populations. There will always be some migration because there are less services available in rural areas. Similarly, the more specialized or scarcity of supply will cause longer travel. An example is family services, where the need remains high and the supply inadequate. Same for veteran services or other specialty areas. Hope that's helpful.