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EDITORIAL: What’s the best way to help the homeless?

The debate over whether giving money to beggars is wise has raged for decades. With the holidays upon us — and an atmosphere of generosity and charity for the less fortunate pervading the air — the issue is again at the forefront.

In parts of Las Vegas, the homeless panhandler on the street corner is as ubiquitous as the strip mall. For many kind-hearted souls, the instinct to help with a few dollars, some spare change, food or other items is the compassionate response. But many observers argue such benevolence is destructive in the long term.

“You see a lot of people going down the street to give blankets, to give water, to give sandwiches,” Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Monday, “and what I’ll tell you is that’s not healthy for the homeless.”

Instead, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued, a more promising course is to ensure the homeless “get services so that moving forward we can keep them off the streets for the long term and get them the proper care and the tools that they need to succeed.”

To that end, this line of thinking goes, directing donations — cash or otherwise — to local charities that work to improve the lives of those on the streets is a far better approach over time.

But not everyone is so quick to dismiss the notion of providing money or supplies directly to the homeless.

“Most of them are using it for their immediate needs, not anything people would consider less important uses, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or anything like that,” Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, told the Review-Journal. “No amount of discouraging other people to give to them will force them into those services. It’s just going to make their lives on the street more difficult.”

In fact, there are good arguments for both sides.

Yes, there are panhandlers who will spend their take on less desirable items. A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that at least 60 percent of homeless people struggle with a drug or alcohol addiction. But it’s also true that handing a few dollars or a blanket directly to a beggar on the street corner might help that person survive. This is not a bad outcome.

At the same time, giving to reputable charities committed to helping men and women transition back into productive life will no doubt provide more peace of mind to the donor about how the money is being spent. Few would argue it isn’t also a better long-term solution to a vexing problem.

In the end, however, the debate seems a case study in hair-splitting. Perhaps it’s more important this holiday season — and throughout the year — to remember the importance of charity and compassion for the down and out, regardless of how you choose to express it.

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