Tuesday, July 16, 2013


By Mike Nettleton

 I joined a line of cars waiting for the light to change at a busy intersection in the Northeast part of Vancouver. A flurry of activity caught my eye on the corner to my right and I glanced over. A middle-aged lady clad in light blouse and baggy slacks, held a sign in the air, bobbing it up and down. A tight frown flickered across her face. The sign read:

Please don’t give my children any more money for heroin!

The message struck me like a slap in the face. I became so intent on watching her and wondering what combination of circumstances had led her to this level of desperation, that it took a strident “toooot” from the driver behind me to alert me to the now-green traffic signal. I cruised slowly across the intersection, watching the parental picketer in my rear view mirror.

Part of me wanted to park, hike back to where she patrolled and ask questions. How old are your children? I was guessing, from her age that they were probably adults. At least in terms of the number of years they’d been on the planet. Why did you pick that intersection? Was it because her children habitually panhandled there? Or simply because she could communicate her message to the largest number of people. How did your children begin using heroin? This is the drug that is the ultimate boogie-man to many people (Despite the fact that methamphetamine is much more prevalent and every bit as addictive). What other things have you tried to help your children prior to this? Is rehab easily obtainable to someone with this kind of addiction? What are some things you didn’t understand about heroin addiction until you children became involved?

For years, I’ve resolved not to give the numerous panhandlers I encounter any money. Some friends of mine, wonderful, caring, generous souls continue to hand over cash to the people who hover on street corners and freeway exits. My perspective is that I don’t want to contribute to an ongoing drug or alcohol addiction. I happily give money to charities that will shelter and feed the homeless and feel it’s a much more effective way to provide help.

My always-ready-to-give friends believe that many of the desperate looking folks with their hand-lettered signs might not have substance abuse issues at all and are merely hungry and homeless. They feel that it is not their place to judge what the money they donate will be used for.

I might be less cynical, were it not for my 4am encounter with a panel van that disgorged eight or nine people I’d seen hitting up motorists for donations at a variety of spots around town. They stocked up on convenience store coffee and cigarettes, assembled signs and chatted among themselves. As I pulled away, I saw them piling back into the van, ostensibly on their way to assigned spots.

I will admit to feelings of guilt upon waving off a street-corner panhandler or a desperate-sounding woman who approaches carrying a gas can, saying she just ran out of fuel and needs to get to Seattle (Hint for those trying this ploy. It might be more convincing if you weren’t smoking a cigarette when you approached me). My better nature, my more evolved self wants to reach into my wallet, extract a few bills and hand them over. After all, there but for the grace of whatever deity you believe in, go I. But I won’t. And part of the reason is the vision of that despairing mother at the intersection and her hand-lettered cry for help.

Please don’t give my children any more money for heroin!

I won’t. I promise. And I hope you can find them some help before it’s too late.


  1. Really interesting, Mike. Thanks for the insightful post.

  2. Thanks for the post. Like you I donate regularly to food pantries and pass by the professional panhandlers. Every time I've checked out one of those people with a sign (and I have) they have turned out to be not qualified or interested in public assistance or food. Personal giving is a good thing, but we should keep alert for the needy in our communities and families and help directly. There are elderly, disabled, temporarily ill and unemployed who can be identified if we look. But tossing money out the window toward a cardboard sign is just a hollow and potentially destructive response to our guilt at our own fortune.