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OpinionColumnistsMike Vogel

Sorting out the homeless from the hustlers

At my lowest point years ago, I was out of work, owed MasterCard five figures and couldn't pay my rent. When an aggressive panhandler jumped in front of my friend and me and barked, "Gimme a dollar," I snapped.

"No, you give me two!" I roared. The startled guy gave me the money, and my friend thought I was Superman. In truth, I was Super Deranged Man, but I actually intimidated the guy. Hmm, maybe I could make a living doing this . . .

Today, some people do, including the guy who bragged to the New York Post he pulls in up to $200 an hour begging in front of Grand Central with his dog.

Make no mistake: There's a real homeless crisis in NYC, it's clearly getting worse, and adequate housing must be provided. But those who conflate homelessness with scamming beggars are muddying the waters.

When NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said recently the best way to get rid of panhandlers is to not give them money, the self-righteous had a field day.

"If he thinks the number of people in need is going to diminish because people don't give, he's mistaken," said Mary Brosnahan, an activist for people who are homeless. That's clearly not what Bratton was saying. He was talking about enabling scamming panhandlers.

Whoever said "beggars can't be choosers" never met the guy planted in front of my local Korean deli. "Spare change on your way out?" he asks. "I'm hungry."

"OK, I'll get you a sandwich," I offer. "Nah, I'll get it myself -- just give me the money."

Fat chance. But it wasn't 30 seconds before a neighbor exited the deli and handed the guy a $5 bill. As the neighbor strolled off, patting himself on the back for his good deed, the panhandler entered the store and bought a Corona six-pack. He'll never leave this spot now -- too many suckers.

If you still have a problem sorting out the scammers from the truly needy, here are the solutions. Offer them food. Direct them to the nearest soup kitchen. Contribute to the non-profits (City Harvest, etc.) that help those in need.

Meanwhile, anyone with eyes knows we have a growing problem with both homelessness and con-artist panhandlers. Time to take concrete steps to deal with both.

Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.

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