Ronald Simms, 54, sits to the right of Dominique McCotter, 30, on Tuesday on a corner near the 12th Street spot where they normally stand, hoping drivers will hand them money. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Ronald Simms stood in the same spot for several hours on a recent frigid morning, holding a sign asking for “Help, Please.” But he had noticed fewer drivers than usual rolling down their car windows and slipping bills into his hands.

“Something ain’t right out here,” he told Dominique McCotter, who panhandles on that same corner. “They ain’t giving like they normally do.”

The two considered the possible reasons. Maybe the approaching holidays had left people with less to spare. Maybe the cold made people more reluctant to open their windows. Or maybe it had nothing at all to do with the season.

Maybe people were responding to the killing of a woman in Baltimore who was stabbed to death after giving money to a panhandler. The incident has given motorists in that Maryland city pause and even caused Oprah Winfrey, who is known for her generosity, to tweet about her hesitations.

“People love Oprah, so they listen to everything she says,” McCotter said.

“Oprah has known struggles, so why would she say that?” Simms said.

After Jacquelyn Smith was stabbed to death this month, the television queen tweeted, “I’ve done this 1k times. But will think twice before ever doing again.”

Her tweet drew more than 10,000 likes, thousands of retweets and comments that showed others shared her hesi­ta­tion about giving to panhandlers. “Ive done this a lot,” one person wrote, “but I’ll be afraid to ever do so again.”

Others vowed to continue giving. “Most homeless folks are just struggling and desperate and thankful for whatever we can spare for them — even just conversation,” one woman wrote. “This won’t change my habits at all.”

People have long held strong feelings about panhandling. Some people choose to never give to strangers standing on the street. They prefer to donate instead to organizations and agencies that help homeless people. Others give when they see certain signs that strike them or a person who looks especially in need. The rarest among us give often, without thinking about where that money might go.

What struck me about the conversation Oprah started — and why I ended up standing near a heat-emanating grate on a bitingly cold morning talking to Simms and McCotter about the business of panhandling — was that it didn’t speak to the debate of giving. It spoke to the fear of doing so.

It spoke to what was at risk of being lost along with Smith’s life: a direct exchange of generosity that helps some of the most vulnerable among us.

Smith’s death was senseless. The 54-year-old had rolled down her window to help a woman who appeared to be holding a baby and was then stabbed by a man who tried to rob her. But also senseless would be letting that horrible incident drive us further away from people in our communities who need help, leaving them even more isolated and desperate.

People, of course, should be smart about their surroundings and trust their gut when they don’t feel safe or don’t believe a person is truly in need. Maybe that’s what Oprah meant by “think twice.” But it would be a shame if anyone who previously might have shared a dollar or a smile started treating panhandlers as pariahs.

The Baltimore Sun published a story after Smith’s death that detailed how panhandlers in that city were seeing fewer handouts and hearing more clicks from locking car doors. “They’re acting like I’m not a person,” the article quoted a homeless man as saying.

Without taking a poll of every panhandler in the District, it would be impossible to say with certainty that cups here have been emptier than normal. But Simms and McCotter have a prime panhandling spot in the city, on 12th Street near Constitution Avenue, allowing them to catch the eye of motorists coming off Interstate 395 and people walking between the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History.

On Tuesday morning, with the lanes in front of him filled with cars, Simms felt frustrated.

Most days by 10:30 a.m., he said he normally receives about $35 to $40. That day, he had $7..

“If a person’s ever been in a struggle, they give to you,” he said

In a lucky moment, someone might hand him or McCotter $20. During unluckier ones, motorists shout at them, “Get a job.”

McCotter said he used to work for a catering company but felt as if he needed three jobs to survive. Simms said he does occasional home improvement jobs and would love to detail cars for a living. As we spoke, his niece called and said a man for whom he had helped clean buses needed him again.

“You can’t never look down on a person because you can’t tell where a person’s been or where they’re going,” Simms said. “I don’t want to be out here every day but I got to survive, some kind of way.”

McCotter said he gives much of what he gets panhandling to his children, ages 6, 7 and 10, who are being raised by their mother.

He said he tries to catch motorists’ attention with a sign that also serves as his protest. It refers to himself with the n-word. He came up with it after he was lying on the sidewalk one day, sick and covered in vomit, and he saw one person after another pass him by. It occurred to him then, he said, that people in this country overlook black people.

“I’m not PC because I’m not running for office,” he said. “I’m strong. I’m able bodied. The thing is, I need support.”

If people are going to stop giving money directly to people who need help, other agencies in the city need to step up and do more, McCotter said.

“No one did it all on their own,” he said, “not even Oprah.”