Column: Don’t give money to panhandlers (with video)

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SEATTLE — Years ago on my commute, there was a panhandler whose cardboard appeal tugged at me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.

“I’ll stand a little taller if you give me a dollar,” it read.

Maybe it was the mismatched rhyme, which sounded authentic. Or that he wasn’t overpromising. Or that the request was both manageable and precise: just one dollar. In any event I rolled down my window more than a few times and gave him dollars until one day he wasn’t there anymore.

Was the guy homeless and genuinely in need? Or was I taken in by slick marketing.

“Fifty-fifty, who knows?” says Matt Longmire. “That’s a very effective sign, though.”

Longmire is a Seattle filmmaker whose new documentary, “Cardboard,” seeks to go behind the signs to tell the stories of Seattle’s panhandlers. He filmed it mostly along Interstate 5 and Aurora (Highway 99) for the better part of a year in 2011 and 2012.

One of his main take-aways: He won’t give money to panhandlers anymore.

Now before you go concluding he found they are all scam artists, he didn’t.

“You line up any hundred people, you’re going to find liars and saints and everything in between,” Longmire says. “Same with panhandlers. People ask: ‘Should I give a dollar?’ And my answer is: To that guy, sure. But that guy? Probably not. And to that guy over there: Definitely not.”

His point is: You can’t tell. Maybe you think you can, by their appearances or some poetry in their signs. But trust him: You can’t.

Longmire found panhandlers who spent the money on food or clothing. But in the movie, a panhandler talks frankly about using his beggings to buy heroin (his sign: “Kindness is karma”).

The heroin addict “is one of the kindest, gentlest people you could ever hope to meet,” Longmire said. “I also met some bad people, nasty. You can’t tell any of it by the signs.”

Best sign he saw: “If you fear change, just leave it with me.”

Some other panhandlers didn’t turn out to be homeless at all. Nobody’s getting rich going to cardboard, though.

“There’s this myth that they can make $100, $200 a day,” Longmire says. “They’ll make thirty bucks, if they’re lucky. And that’s working a line of cars for hours.”

He said he used to give money, or not, making the decision on some gut instinct, as I do. But he says money is too often not the right aid. It’s not that you’re being scammed — though sometimes you definitely are — so much as you’re not necessarily helping.

Now he tries to carry supplies in his car to give out in lieu of cash. Bottles of water, say, or, if he’s organized enough, rain ponchos.

“Everybody wants an easy answer, some sort of panhandling rule we can all follow,” Longmire says. “There isn’t one.”

He hasn’t seen any of the panhandlers he featured in the movie around the city this year. But this summer he did catch a glimpse of one of their signs — a board with a personal story about a homeless woman and her sick dog, Wolf. The sign includes a photo of Wolf.

Longmire said he went up to say hello and was startled to find her exact sign being used to tug at passing hearts by someone new: a young guy in a wheelchair.

How did her sign get there? Did she pass it down like some sort of heirloom? Or was it stolen — a productive sign having its own street value?

The cardboard has its stories, too.

Danny Westneat can be reached at dwestneat@seattletimes.com

Video

"Cardboard" official trailer

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