For most of July and August, a woman with short blonde hair and sad eyes begged for change at an intersection by my house.
I saw her sitting or standing, sweating and holding a piece of cardboard at that intersection nearly every day on my way to and from work.
One morning I happened to be the first one in line at the light. She looked at me and waved a little bit. Blue polish dotted her fingernails. She's probably a little younger than I am — maybe in her early 20s. She appears nice and pretty clean. She obviously has a regular change of clothing.
Normally I look at panhandlers with compassion. I've been known to give money and food more than once. Sometimes I cry. Really.
But this girl is different.
She litters. She sits out in the median all day with a sign, smoking, snacking and sipping on sports drinks. Then she leaves the bottles and wrappers there when she departs in the evening.
She smiled at me. I rolled my window down.
Me: "Hey, do you sleep somewhere around here?"
Her: "Yeah. Under the bridge."
Me: "Do you need a place to crash until you get on your feet?"
Her: "No. That's OK."
Me: "You sure?"
Her: "Yeah. I'm saving up for an apartment."
Me: "Oh, you are? Good for you!"
Her: "Yeah. I only need five more dollars."
The light turned green. Thank goodness. I was able to hit the gas before calling her a liar. If she only needed $5 more, she shouldn't have bought that pack of cigarettes.
The Oklahoma City Council turned down the idea of a panhandling ordinance Tuesday. I liked the original idea. Panhandlers would have to stay out of the medians, and legitimate groups, like firefighters, could raise money for charity once a year. But once the exception for charities was scrapped, the ordinance went south.
I hope the issue comes up again.
I feel compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged. Ask any of my friends, and they'll tell you that I would adopt the world if I could. But I don't feel compassion for lying litterers. Maybe if panhandling is restricted a bit more, people like this girl will have to find other ways to get money. Like, say, a job picking up litter.
Some panhandlers do actually need help, and that makes it difficult to say no to sad faces and sad signs, said Dan Straughn, executive director of Homeless Alliance. Many beggars claim to be homeless, but as many as 80 percent of them aren't, he said.
It raises an ethical question: do you help everyone, knowing that for every one person who needs help there are four who are cheating you?
Straughn said Oklahoma City residents have options that eliminate that question: vouchers. Homeless Alliance and City Rescue Mission have programs that help connect the homeless to real help.
• Homeless Alliance sells vouchers that people can use to take a bus to one of the three main homeless shelters. Vouchers are $1 each and are sold in books of five. About 1,000 vouchers are distributed each month, and only about 10 percent are actually redeemed for bus rides, Straughn said. Vouchers are for sale at the Homeless Alliance and at city hall. Call 632-2293.
• City Rescue Mission offers Compassion Cards for free. The person can call the toll-free number on the card, and mission officials will pick up the caller from any location. The cards can be downloaded at www.cityrescue.org/compassion-card. Call 232-2709.
The girl on the corner near my home has disappeared, but a new panhandler replaced her. I pulled up to the light and read the woman's sign, claiming she was in need of any help she could get.
I tore one of the Homeless Alliance vouchers out of the book and held it out of my car window for her. She took it and stuffed it in her back pocket. Then she took something out of the same pocket: a fat wad of cash. She covered it with her hand, but peeked down to check how much was there. She stuffed it into her front pocket and held her cardboard sign back up.