When you encounter a person on the street asking for money, how do you respond?
Do you see someone less fortunate and dig into your pocket to hand over a couple of bucks, or do you look away and briskly walk past?
That's the uncomfortable, conflicted, internal conversation each of us may have when we run into people who say they are down on their luck and asking for help.
But Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik brought the issue into public view last week with a Facebook message she posted after a trip to a village shopping center, where she saw what appeared to be a man, woman and several children step into traffic to beg for money.
Kovarik urged friends and followers not to encourage panhandlers by giving them money. She said a lot of them are scam artists, and she fears the tourist-heavy village could become an easy mark and a magnet for such activity.
She acknowledged that it "tugs at your heartstrings" to see individuals or families who appear to be in distress, but suggested a better option might be to donate to agencies that provide help on a daily basis.
We understand her concerns and agree they are valid. We also think this is a human issue that deserves more attention than a Facebook admonition. Maybe that post can be the starting point for a broader discussion about helping the very poor in our midst.
Panhandling, and deciding whether to give or not to give, is a complex issue. Some panhandlers are scam artists, but many others are overwhelmed with financial problems.
Panhandling is most visible in big cities, but it is not uncommon in the suburbs. It can be found in parking lots, at gas stations and on street corners.
Many experts, including PADS Lake County Executive Director Joel Williams, agree with Kovarik's message. "It's kind of a Band-Aid solution to give to someone who is panhandling or whatever the case may be," Williams told the Daily Herald's Bob Susnjara.
While giving spare change to a person begging on the street may help him or her in the short run and soothe one's conscience, it does little to improve that person's long-term situation or address the issues that have led him or her to that point. It could be unemployment or underemployment, drug or alcohol addition, or a mental or physical health problem. Those are issues better suited for the various charities and social service organizations working throughout the suburbs.
Many are underfunded and victims of the recession and the state's mounting budget woes, and find it increasingly hard to reach individuals who want and need help the most.
Rather than providing a temporary handout, an alternative, as Kovarik noted, might be to donate to those groups.
As part of its call to discourage panhandling, maybe Gurnee can also lead an effort to drive donations to where they may do the most good -- and seeing that the people who need them get them so that they won't feel the need to go begging on the streets.