WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - When approached by a panhandler, the time between a red and green light is hardly enough to try and figure out who is really in need of help and who is asking for drug money. So what are you supposed to do?
All of these people need some kind of help but they are unlikely to find it on a corner. Your money, good will, prayer and food donations are very much needed, but how you give them makes the difference between bettering someone's situations versus paying away a problem?
"We answer that question, 'Should I give money?' with 'Do you have a relationship with that person to know they will use that money the right way?'" said Jeremy Hardy of Vigilant Hope. "Are you walking with them to get them in a better situation? We also answer that question, since we are a faith-based organization, if the Lord is telling you to give money then, of course, you should do that."
Vigilant Hope is a non-profit organization (commonly mistaken as a church) whose team provides showers, meals and support to those in crisis.
"We always said don't be led by guilt," advised Jason Mitchell. "I think a lot of it is led by guilt. If you're giving to somebody to make yourself feel better who are you really helping? You or them?"
Hardy and Mitchell maintain that all people, including the panhandlers, deserve second, third, fourth, one-hundredth chances. Their programs support people along the way, on the condition they have decided to seek help and are willing to do the leg work.
"If you don't understand their need and don't know who they are, then why are you going to give them money?" asked Hardy. "The money thing is an easy way out of helping them. It's an easy way out of true help."
On a particularly chilly night early on in the production of this documentary, we posted up outside the Rite Aid on Dawson to watch an aggressive panhandler. He had been making erratic and pushy moves on drivers and pedestrians throughout the day. It was during that observation period that we also met Benita Cleveland.
"I don't want them putting it in their veins," she said. "If I can help, not support the drugs or alcohol - whatever their crutch, I try to meet their need with food.
With clothing, if need be."
She and her daughter Mariah organize care packages and pass them out randomly to whoever looks in need. Several churches and organizations do the same, often calling them "Manna Bags," a Biblical reference to the bread that fell from the sky.
These gifts are very familiar to the panhandlers who can list off a lengthy report of the socks, shampoos, gift cards, waters and soaps they've been given over time.
The gratitude, however, is not always universal. We watched some panhandlers throw them into the garbage while others enjoyed every item in the bag.
The night we met Cleveland, she had pulled into the Rite Aid parking lot, grabbing a bag full of goods as she walked toward the aggressive panhandler. This was not safe. Especially considering his behavior.
Sweating and pacing in front of her we watched as she handed over the items with a smile. He held them for a few seconds before handing them right back.
She shook her head and returned to her car.
Despite the rejection, Cleveland's resolve was untarnished.
"God says the poor will always be with you," she reassured. "The young man that I tried to help, he rejected my help. It hurt my heart. I remember walking back to my car and wondering how God's heart hurts whenever we reject him when he's trying to help us."