Haven't been panhandled lately, but have been thinking of the questions. Give or don't give directly? Cash, coins or food? Acknowledge or ignore?
This is on my mind because in my Michigan hometown of Saginaw, six police officers shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man during the summer, and there has been all sorts of controversy. To know more, there is the option of Googling for "Milton Hall Saginaw." My own feeling, shared by many others, is that the cops could have restrained Milton instead of gunning him down, although he was brandishing a knife. But back to panhandling.
One person who commented on a blog said they had encountered Milton, and that he was aggressive and had scared them. Many of the pro-cops opinions have been biased, but this is one I can understand even though is didn't justify shooting Milton. Being older in age and not having been in an altercation since I was a kid, I don't want to get hooked up in a street-side hockey fight. Indeed, a homeless panhandler can be scary in some rare instances.
I suppose the best reaction is to say, "Look, I don't have anything either." There have been a few times when a panhandler looked at me with sort of screwy surprise after I said, "Dang, what a coincidence, I was just about to ask YOU for a dollar." (It reflects on my near-senior citizen status to recall back when a mere quarter was worth what a dollar's worth nowadays.)
I did some web-searching, and there were suggestions such as, if near a food service place, offer to get the panhandler some food, which makes sense. There are other considerations, though. Whether money or food, encouraging the panhandler may lead to more panhandling, harmful to nearby business establishments in their everyday quests to attract customers.
One thing I learned from the web search, from a writeup by a former panhandler doing better now, is to not ignore the solicitor. At least offer some human acknowledgement, being a glance and a few words, even if you have nothing to offer or you choose not to offer anything. Don't just walk by with a stiff neck.
We can always soothe our consciences, of course, by donating to shelters and soup kitchens and food banks, but when encountering a panhandler directly, this seems like sort of a cop-out.
Usually, I just sort of say to myself what-the-hang, reach in my pocket, and give some coins.
Also, was surprised to see that the municipal website for what would seem to be a prosperous university town -- Bloomington, Indiana -- devotes an entire entry to advice in regards to panhandling.