So what if panhandlers drink their profits?

Over the past year, I have noted a pronounced increase in the number of panhandlers in Minneapolis. I have noticed this because I am not blind. There are simply a lot more drunks, addicts, homeless and otherwise marginalized folks hovering at the steet corners.

Most of the prime begging spots--especially busy interesections with easy access to liquor stores (such as Washington Avenue and West Broadway)--are now occupied nearly round the clock. Even more remote locales are regularly worked by panhandlers. The ramp near the intersection of Dowling Avenue and I-94 is one of the most desolate corners of the city, yet it is almost always manned.

This proliferation of panhandlers adds new urgency to an old urban quandry: Is better to give or not to give? The orthodox view--promoted by most politicans, cops, business people, and even social service workers--is a resounding "No!" They will tell you that you are actually hurting street people when you give them money because they will "waste it" on alcohol or drugs.

This rationale has always struck me as something of a convenient moral free pass. While I don't doubt that the spare change I've doled out over the years has been spent on vice, I've also long suspected that making things easier for a drunk or an addict might not always be a bad thing for society.

As fleeting as the typcial exchange with a panhandler may be, after all, it is still a human interaction. That counts for something. Who knows? Maybe in some small way, it might act as a balm to the crushing alienation of street life. Besides, when you give to a panhandler, that probably means the panhandler won't have to stand shivering at the damn interesection for so long. That would seem to reduce suffering and, consequently, might lead to some social benefit.

I never had much evidence to support these admittedly half-assed views. But a study published in yesterday's Canadian Medical Association Journal provides a smidgeon of backing. In the study, a group of homeless alcoholics from Ottawa were given free alcohol on a daily basis. And guess what? According to researchers, this led to significant reductions in both arrests and emergency room visits:

Seventeen homeless adults, all with long and chronic histories of alcohol abuse, were allowed up to 15 glasses of wine or sherry a day - a glass an hour from 7am to 10pm - in the Ottawa-based program, which started in 2002 and is continuing.

After an average of 16 months, the number of times participants got in trouble with the law had fallen 51 per cent from the three years before they joined the program, and hospital emergency room visits were down 36 per cent.

Of course, the alcoholics in the Canadian study also benefited from the free medical care and extended social contact that they received along with the booze--benefits panhandlers in Minneapolis and other American cities don't see much of.