Here’s a radical idea guaranteed to make heads explode: Rather than twist ourselves up in knots over Portland’s legion of panhandlers, we should give to them freely, frequently and without worry about what they might do with the money.

Relax, restive masses. This is not the brainchild of Mayor Ethan Strimling, Progressive Portland or any of those other socialist types plotting to take over the People’s Republic of Portland.

It comes from Pope Francis.

“There are many excuses” for ignoring people who beg on the street, Francis told the Italian magazine Scarp de’ Tenis (Italian for “Tennis Shoes”) in an interview last week, one day before the start of Lent.

But giving to such people, the pope said, “is always right.”

What’s more, Francis said, just “tossing money and not looking in (their) eyes is not a Christian” way to practice charity. Instead, you should reach out and touch the person, treat him or her like a fellow human, show some real compassion.

The pope made his remarks to the magazine, which serves the homeless and other outcasts in the Italian city of Milan, in anticipation of a visit there later this month. But in just over a week, his words have gone global.

The Catholic News Service first picked it up, followed by an editorial Friday in The New York Times that concluded, “Maybe compassion is the right call.”

It’s a timely issue for Portland, where solutions to the “panhandling problem” have been bandied about for years.

City Hall’s latest proposal: creation of the “Portland Opportunity Crew,” a 36-week pilot program through which panhandlers will be offered the opportunity to work for six hours a day in exchange for two meals, water and the city’s minimum wage of $10.86 an hour.

But that $42,000 project, however well-intentioned, can only do so much – for now, the works crews will be limited to five people per day and will be deployed only two days a week.

The rest of the panhandlers, from those who can’t work to those who decline the work to those who don’t get asked, will still be out there. What’s worse, they’ll all suffer the stigma of having turned down honest labor, whether it’s true or not.

So back to the daily dilemma: Do you give sometimes, all the time or never? And if you do, how do you reconcile your kindness with the real possibility that your donation will go no further than a tall can of Anheuser-Busch Natty Daddy?

Scarp de’ Tenis asked Pope Francis that very question – although (it being Italy and all) they referenced a “glass of wine.”

The pope’s response: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?”

He also suggested you consider that “you are luckier, with a house, a wife, children” and thus should directly shoulder some of the responsibility to help those less fortunate.

All of which got me thinking about my dear wife, Andrea, who came home one evening last fall with a remarkable story.

She’d stepped out for a breath of fresh air during the afternoon when she came across a man on Exchange Street with a lengthy sign.

It stated that he’d just found work, but had not yet been paid and needed money for food for his two kids. Without it, he later explained, the Department of Human Services caseworker who occasionally stopped by might notice the bare cupboard and take the children away.

Call her naïve, but after speaking with the man for a few minutes, Andrea believed him.

The problem was she had no cash in her purse. So she walked down to the Cabot Farmer’s Annex on Commercial Street, purchased some cheese and sausage and brought it back to the guy.

Then they walked up to Monument Square, where she ran up to her office and brought back a bag brimming with baby carrots that she keeps for workday snacks. A co-worker had tossed in a box of crackers.

The man, having already stuffed his sign in a trash can because “I don’t want my kids to think I’m a bum,” couldn’t have been more grateful.

More recently, while she walked up Preble Street one morning to her office, Andrea crossed paths with another lost soul who looked her in the eye and asked, “Do you have any spare change for a warm beverage in exchange for a song?”

She told him the song wasn’t necessary. But he insisted.

“It’s only eight lines long,” he promised.

She relented.

“I wasn’t always homeless,” he first explained, recalling how he’d worked as a tanner in Sanford and how one morning he awoke to find his girlfriend on the floor, dead from pneumonia.

Finally, in a pitch-perfect voice, he began to sing. The song was about dreams, Andrea later recalled, and when he finished, they both had tears in their eyes.

“All I had was a five,” she said. “So I gave it to him.”

“Whoa!” the man said. “Are you opposed to hugs?”

“No,” replied Andrea with a smile.

With that, these two strangers embraced for a moment, formally introduced themselves, wished each other well and went on with their vastly different lives.

“You’re lucky you weren’t mugged,” I told her that evening.

“No,” she protested. “It really wasn’t like that. Besides, there were other people around.”

I thought about that hug this week when I about the pope’s insistence that helping someone in need cannot be an afterthought. “One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog,” he said. “And they notice this different way of looking.”

Far better to truly connect with the beggars among us, Francis said, “by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

Me? I confess I’m not quite there yet. I still can’t shake the memory of the con artist who breathlessly stopped me on the sidewalk three times in the same week, each time claiming he’d just run out of gas and needed to get to his kids and blah … blah … blah …

(The first time, I gave him a buck. The second time, I lied that I had no money. The third time, I told him to take a hike.)

Still, all this talk about panhandling – from Portland City Hall all the way to the Vatican – leads me to two revelations:

Pope Francis, for all his simplicity, is one provocative pontiff.

And I think I married a saint.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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