Some days, it’s easy to be a heartless jerk; some days, it’s not.For example, a couple gloomy Monday mornings ago, a man asked me for money as soon as I stepped off a Metro bus downtown. I ignored him and kept walking. 

About two minutes later, another man came up to me down in the Metro tunnel and asked me for money; I ignored him. Apparently, he didn’t like that, so he stepped close enough to me for me to smell his rank breath and sarcastically asked me if I spoke English. 

I broke my personal policy of ignoring panhandlers and swore at him. He responded by balling his hands into fists, verbally threatening me and then backing away. 

I don’t think twice about ignoring guys like that. They’re always downtown near the bus stops along Third Avenue and down in the Metro tunnel, and they’re always asking for money. You expect them. 

But, once in a while, a panhandler will catch you off guard. 

Like the thin woman holding a small baby I saw sitting outside a post office three Saturdays in a row in July. She had a cardboard sign propped next to her, asking for money. As I walked by her all three times, I almost broke my rule and handed her some cash — almost. 

 

‘See it, send it’

Someone who didn’t ignore Seattle’s aggressive panhandlers was a visitor in town for the Sept. 16 Seattle Seahawks-Dallas Cowboys football game. This Seattle native, now living in Chicago, was so alarmed by his experiences downtown he wrote a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, claiming, “The aggressive panhandling and the sheer number of homeless are frightening. We could not walk 5 feet without someone literally standing in our path and asking for money. Walking through the smell of human waste and my 10-year-old son stepping in human feces on the sidewalk erased the actual beauty of the [Pike Place] Market. My children were afraid.” 

McGinn, who vetoed an aggressive-panhandling bill passed by the Seattle City Council in 2010, replied by sending a long e-mail to Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City Council and other city leaders, detailing what the city is doing to combat nuisance crimes and street disorder downtown. Measures include more funding for at-risk people; new approaches to police patrols, including a focus on known crime hot spots and arresting drug dealers; and improvements to the streetscape at Third Avenue and Pine Street. 

Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau launched its own program in September called “See It, Send It,” which encourages downtown businesses and tourism professionals to send photos and descriptions to elected officials of illegal activity and behavior that could make visitors and locals feel unsafe. 

 

Giving and receiving

Panhandlers are the most visible examples of the poor in our city. You can notice thousands of other examples sleeping in parks, in doorways and underneath bridges and exit ramps, or living in cars, campers and vans, or you can see their tents in wooded areas next to highways. Some of them are mentally ill, battling alcohol or substance addiction or have been wounded by war or traumatic childhoods. And, of course, there are the invisible poor, surviving paycheck to paycheck or on government subsidies.   

If you followed the recent elections at all, you probably heard a lot said about the rich and the middle class but not too much about the poor. Meanwhile, about $6 billion was spent on this year’s elections — if you combine the spending for federal, state and local races — all to seemingly maintain the political status quo. 

Here in Washington state, gubernatorial candidates Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna spent a combined $46 million on their campaigns. How many people in our country, state and city could have been helped in some way by that money?

What to do about poverty is one of those ancient problems humanity has never been able to solve. Some people strive for solutions, while some people argue the poor will always be with us because that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will always be. 

Since childhood we’ve all been taught the lessons of the holiday season: that we should be thankful for our blessings, that it’s better to give than to receive and that we should share with the less fortunate when we can. And many of us put into practice those lessons this time of year and make donations to charities to try help in some way.

But what will happen on a gloomy Monday morning in January when a man or woman asks you for money? Some days, it’s not easy being a heartless jerk. But too many days, it is. 

MATTHEW WILEMSKI is an award-winning columnist. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.