Signs everywhere ….

The sight of someone holding a hastily scribbled plea for assistance has become a depressingly normal occurrence in the Tampa area. You see them at intersections, outside restaurants and in local parks.

Most of the signs are neither noteworthy nor particularly memorable – a few words like “Hungry,” “Out of Work,” or “Vet in need of help” on a small piece of cardboard. (Some people spare a second and some change to help.)

But this past week there were two attention-grabbing and completely opposite signs worthy of mention.

At a signal is downtown St. Petersburg a young woman held a sign saying, and I paraphrase slightly here, “Rape victim in need of room, food. For safety. Honest. Please help.” If this sign was a gimmick to prey on peoples’ sympathies it was sick beyond measure. If true, a sign of utter desperation and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. (With a baby in the car, at dusk, in a questionable neighborhood, I didn’t stop to ask – and now, of course, I can’t stop thinking about that woman; wondering if she found the safety she was seeking.)

 A couple days later in north Tampa (near the Hard Rock Casino, no less) was a middle-aged man sitting on the side of a highway exit with a sign saying simply “Need Beer.” You have to admire the man’s honesty.

 But that started me wondering — Just how many of the people you now see on the street corners are being honest?

 On the one hand, you want to think they all are – even if that means that so many people are so desperate for help. On the other hand, part of you wants to think they’re all entrepreneurs preying on the sympathy of strangers as a business, so that we can all pretend none of our countrymen are really that desperate.

 As the economic crisis drags on, unemployment and homelessness are rising across the U.S., leaving many communities to grapple with how to balance individual need with community safety. Some cities have banned begging after dark, in groups, use of aggressive tactics or within proscribed distances from restaurants and other businesses. Other cities have banned sleeping on sidewalks or in parks. Some of the measures, as The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty notes in a July 2009 report, in effect criminalize being homeless.

 Whatever the level of need of those panhandling the streets of America’s towns and cities, there is no doubt that “need” is on the rise and everyone should be prepared to lend a helping hand, dollar, old shirt or bag of canned goods whenever we can. If you’re uncomfortable rolling down the window and handing out cash – fine; donate a bag of old clothes to the Good Will or your local church. If you don’t “do charity” that’s fine too – think of it as recycling!

 But do something …. Cause you never know. One day you may be the one in need.