To give or not to give?

You see him a block away, and you know what's coming.

Conflicting emotions surge: fear, pity, sorrow, maybe anger.

Then you wonder: What should I do?

Even those in the compassion business -- religious leaders, homeless shelter directors, ethicists -- have trouble agreeing on whether to give to panhandlers. As the nights get longer and colder and as the holidays arrive, the dilemma grows sharper. Does a handout help the homeless or perpetuate a social problem?

Lloyd Schmeidler talks to panhandlers every day, but he never gives them a dime. The director of Urban Ministries in Durham said he can contribute more by running his charity, which provides food, clothing and shelter for the needy. He believes everyone is better off if money goes to such organizations rather than directly to a person on the street.

"I certainly wouldn't want to fault people who decide to provide money to panhandlers," he said. "However, I discourage it and try to avoid doing it. Generally, the person does not use it for food but for drugs and alcohol."

But Jan Boxill, a professor of ethics at UNC-Chapel Hill, said people should give in most instances, even if they're not sure the recipient will use the money for basic needs.

"Until we find a better way of handling it, do we just ignore them?" Boxill said. "That's hard for me to do. I can't give to everyone, but it's hard for me to ignore someone who is destitute. We can't ignore that there's a problem and that we as individuals have a duty to charity."

The issue goes beyond an individual's conscience. Panhandlers deter people from visiting downtown areas of the Triangle, many business owners say. To them, beggars are at best a nuisance, at worst frightening and dangerous.

"Ninth Street's been through hell," said JoAnne Worthington, owner of Joe and Jo's Restaurant in downtown Durham. "All of a sudden you're seeing your customers not come back because they're scared."

Nancy Hormann, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, said Raleigh panhandlers are less pervasive than many believe. A recent arrival, she said she had been in town a month before someone on the street asked her for money. "In reality, we have a perception problem," she said. "It's just always one of those things that's a deterrent."

The Chapel Hill News recently heard from readers who said panhandlers discourage them from visiting downtown.

"The last time I went to downtown Chapel Hill, I walked two blocks and was confronted by a man who appeared to be in his 30s and then by a woman in her early 20s," wrote Jackie Helvey of Carrboro. "The man asked for money. The woman asked for money and then asked for my food. It reminded me why I don't go to downtown Chapel Hill very often."

Panhandlers are part of the street scene in Chapel Hill. On sun-drenched afternoons and chilly fall nights, they sit on benches or walls and ask for help from passers-by, mostly college students.

A young woman, thin with a pale, gaunt face, recently walked up to three college guys, stuck out her hand and asked for a dollar. One of them obliged.

"See, I didn't scare you, did I?" asked the woman, Amanda Abbott, 21, who said she lives in a tent a few miles away near a shopping center.

Abbott said she always tells people why she needs money -- usually for something to eat or a pack of cigarettes -- and never asks for more than she needs.

Her mother died a short time ago, she said, leaving her with no money and no job. She moved to the Chapel Hill area in search of work and makes ends meet by begging in the meantime, she said.

"For the most part, people are really, really nice," Abbott said.

Nathaniel Lee, 61, wearing a scruffy beard and thick glasses, was bundled in a coat and hat on a recent chilly night. He said he has been panhandling in Chapel Hill for years and uses the money for food.

"There's a bunch of people out here who get money to buy drugs," Lee said. "I know some that stay up all night long when they're drugged out."

Lee and Abbott count on handouts from people such as Sarah Miracle, 25, of Morrisville, who was on Franklin Street one recent evening. Miracle, a graduate student, said she gives to panhandlers and doesn't pass judgment.

"If there's a chance it could actually help someone, you know, what am I going to do with a dollar? Buy another bottle of Coke?" Miracle said. "I don't really need that."

She doubts that she has ever given money to anyone who was intoxicated.

"If somebody's bleary-eyed, it may not be drugs. They just might be sick. Malnutrition can have a strong effect."

But not everyone walking along Franklin Street is so trusting. Ben Sutton, 49, of Wayne County kept his eyes straight ahead and his hands in his pockets as he passed several panhandlers.

"We live in America," he said. "There's so much out there to help people get by if they want help."

Worthington, the Durham restaurant owner, believes giving to panhandlers abets crime. "They seem harmless," she said. "But they're the same guys who break into our cars and broke into our restaurant."

Police in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill enforce local laws that restrict how, when and where people can panhandle. Since Raleigh's law went into effect in March 2001, police have counted 1,523 violations; in most cases, the panhandlers weren't arrested but received citations.

Police Lt. Hil Miller, who has worked downtown Raleigh for more than 20 years, said a handful of regulars is usually joined by a steady flow of panhandlers passing through.

Officers add a dose of compassion to their duties, offering to help panhandlers find work or a spot at a shelter as an alternative to begging, he said

"We always try to err on the side of human dignity," Miller said. "It's not as simple as, 'It's the law, and that's it,' because there's human beings involved."

Miller said he is not sure where he comes down on the question of whether to give to panhandlers. "I have seen folks beg money and then they go and they drink it, and they never get any help," he said. "I've also seen folks beg money and then I saw 'em six months later and I didn't recognize 'em."

The chance that some spare change could make a difference is part of why some religious leaders say it's best to err on the side of charity.

The Rev. Phillip Leach, pastor of the Newman Catholic Student Center Parish in Chapel Hill, said giving to anyone in need is a no-brainer for Christians. "The Scripture says explicitly, 'Give to every person who asks of you,' " Leach said, citing Matthew 5:42.

"To me, the scriptural injunction is absolutely clear."

But giving money isn't enough, Leach said. He offers to buy panhandlers a meal and tries to sit and talk with them while they eat.

"Hurling a quarter or even a dollar at somebody is a way to dismiss this burdensome person in front of me," he said. "The really hard thing for me to give is my time. To stand and say, 'What is your name? Tell me about your family. Are you angry at the people who say no? Where do you sleep at night?' It's to engage the person that asks of me in such a way that I recognize that person as another child of God."

Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh said Judaism is equally straightforward. "Jewish law is pretty clear that if someone asks you for help, our first response is not to ask questions but to give in the moment what we can," Solomon said.

When he lived in New York City, he said, he and his friends would carry booklets of McDonald's coupons to give out, assuring them that their charity would go to food.

"If you don't have money in your pocket to give to someone, then at the very least you should give a smile," Solomon said.

"You honor them as a human being."

(Staff writer Lisa Hoppenjans contributed to this report.)