I was getting gas this afternoon as a regular-ol’ off-duty civilian and was approached by a gentleman who said, “Can you help me out — I’m just trying to get to Pasadena and ran out of gas.” I said, “Sorry I can’t help you.” (as I always do — more on why later) and continued pumping my gas.

He was dressed “normally” and was driving an older, but in fine shape, Lexus SUV.

I saw one guy give him $5 at the next pump over. He walked over to the glass payment window, pretended to talk to the clerk inside and then walked back to his car and put the gas pump into the car. I was fairly certain no gas was being pumped, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

I finished pumping my gas and had a few minutes before I had to meet a buddy for lunch. I thought to myself, Oh what the hell, I’ve always wanted to do this off duty, and drove to the other side of the the parking lot of the strip mall where I had a view of his car and the gas pump.

I grabbed my binoculars that I keep in my duty bag in my truck and watched the show.

I watched as the guy would ask people for money. When he hooked someone, he would take the money, walk over to the glass wall office, pretend to speak to the clerk and then walk back to the car and start “pumping.” I could see through the binoculars that the numbers on the pump were not moving.

He would wait for the person who gave him money to leave, then look for the next victim.

He probably made $10-$15 in the 15 minutes I watched and it was a complete scam.

We’ve all seen people with signs at the bottom of freeway off-ramps, at the exits of shopping centers and in the medians of major intersections. I’ve seen people give them money almost every time I’m waiting for the light to turn green.

As a police officer for 21 years I’ve responded to hundreds of calls for service because someone became too aggressive and began banging on car windows and blocking traffic while asking for money. In every single case (and I mean every single case), the person was either:

1) under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or
2) had outstanding warrants for drug or alcohol-related offenses, or
3) somewhere in between the beginning and the end of a downward spiral connected to drug or alcohol addiction

When you give money to someone in public, you are either

1) getting scammed
2) participating in that person’s downward spiral

I’ve encountered people at the beginning of the downward spiral and I’ve seen them at the bottom. It’s not pretty at any spot on the timeline, but it gets much uglier as it reaches the depths of hell only an addict, I am sure, can understand.

I think most people give people money on the side of the road because they want to feel like they are making a difference.

You are not.

Donate to your local homeless shelter, Salvation Army, Goodwill or any of the many worthy local charities of your choice instead. Donate your time. Donate your expertise. Donate your clothing, furniture and food to an organization you trust and have researched.

Advocate and write your representative to put more tax dollars toward public mental health treatment.

You want to be a good person. You just don’t have the time to do the things I mention above and so you resort to grabbing for your change in the ashtray as you come to a stop.

You have every right to give your money to whomever you want and by whatever method you choose.

Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you are helping anyone when you roll down your window at the red light.

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