Posts Tagged ‘Compassion Corner’

Should You Give Money to Panhandlers? ‘Mouthwash Dave’ Offers Lesson

March 27, 2014

 photo 2


By Michael Joe Murphy

“Mouthwash Dave” didn’t earn his nickname because he sought to enhance his oral hygiene.

Dave panhandled on the streets of Orlando, politely asking the kindhearted, one at a time, for 25 cents. When he’d collect four quarters, he’d make a beehive to the nearest Dollar Store to buy a big jug of mouthwash.

He didn’t have money for beer or wine, so he got his fix with an alcohol-based mouthwash.

When panhandlers stop you on a downtown street, do you feel compelled to reach into your pocket to hand over a buck or pocketful change? Or do “will-work-for-food” signs at intersections tug your heartstrings and spur a reflexive hand-out-the-window donation to the beggar?

You might be doing them more harm than good.

Dawn Neff was one of the founding volunteers at Compassion Corner, a “listening ministry” for the homeless in downtown Orlando.

She will never forget meeting “Mouthwash Dave, a “really sweet guy” and gentle spirit, in the autumn of 2001.

Dave had no sooner introduced himself that he convulsed in seizures, trembling and shaking, Neff recalls, and “I’d never seen that before. I called 911.”

Neff sat with Dave in the hospital emergency room, watching in horror when as more intense spasms of pain wracked his body. He was detoxifying.

In the summer of 2000, Orlando banned begging anywhere outside of blue-dotted lines painted on the sidewalk at 25 locations concentrated downtown. But the 3-by-15 foot “panhandling zones” didn’t confine “Mouthwash Dave.”

He wasn’t aggressive. And neither are most casual panhandlers today.

In cities of any size, it’s likely you’ll be approached for a handout.

Before you’re tempted to help someone on the street who seeks money, ask yourself: What’s my motivation? Am I trying to do something immediately to appease the panhandler so he’ll move on and you can get on your way? Or do you want to help in a meaningful way?

Neff, who ministered to the homeless in downtown Orlando for almost 12 years, offers this advice: “Check your motivations. It’s not necessarily bad to give money to the homeless or to panhandlers. But there might be better alternatives for you – and the person you’d like to help.”

According to many studies, most of the homeless suffer from drug abuse, alcoholism or mental retardation. “The last thing you’d want to do is fuel addiction,” Neff says.

Not all panhandlers are homeless. It might be that the person who’s asking for cash needs it for food or medicine or bus fare to get to work.

“If someone at corner looks famished and you can’t stop to chat, consider going to the closest barbecue joint or McDonald’s, buying a sandwich and fries to take back to the panhandler,” Neff says. “Many times it may not be food that they really want, but you’ll be wiser doing that than giving away money.”

If you’re motivated and have the time, Neff says, “Check out ‘the rest of the story,’ particularly if you’ve seen person on the street or you’ve talked before – if you feel confident they’ll do the right thing. If someone just approaches you for some coins, take the time to get to know them. It doesn’t take much to get a conversation started.”

Neff has given money to homeless people in downtown Orlando, “but those handouts have been very seldom. And when I have, I’ve donated to people I’ve really known, who have no dependency issues, who want $2 only to pay for one night’s stay at a homeless center.”

Neff offers one more thought: “Keep in mind that homeless people are prideful, too.”

The same can’t be said for all panhandlers.

Be wary. But also beware making hard-line decisions and adopting a one-approach-fits-all response when you’re asked to help.

Neff stayed with “Mouthwash Dave” throughout his detoxification at the emergency room, as he convulsed in even bigger seizures. A relationship was established.

Dave was a regular visitor among the homeless and the paupers at Compassion Corner for years.

He struggled with alcoholism until he succumbed to cancer.

A decade later, the ranks of men and women without a roof over their heads in downtown Orlando remain.

So do those “blue boxes” painted on sidewalks.

photo 1

Michael Joe Murphy

Michael Joe Murphy

Michael Joe Murphy, a volunteer for the Polis Institute, can be reached at Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.





Socks for the Sole, Listening for the Soul

December 25, 2013


By Michael Joe Murphy

Stockings hung by the chimney with care … they’re not likely waiting for men, women and children who live on the streets. But gifts of clean, white socks provide comfort and warmth for the tired feet of the homeless who pound the pavement to get to anywhere they need to go.

Thank you, Scott Maxwell, for his Dec. 22  column in the Orlando Sentinel, “12 ways you can make a difference for area’s homeless.” The practical tips are holiday-themed but worth remembering 365 days a year.

Maxwell mentions keeping manna bags — filled with toiletry items and socks — in cars. I work in downtown Orlando. To his advice, I’ll add that there’s always room in backpacks, briefcases or purses for clean socks to give away.

Why white? They’re gender-neutral, good for men and women. Christmas is a prime time for sock drives, but the need is greatest during Central Florida’s rainy season. Even 90-second gully washers can mean wet feet. It’s easy to peel off wet socks and put on fresh ones after a downpour, especially when your best access to laundry is a sink in a public restroom. Clean socks are like gold.

My passion for socks and people who sleep under stars and in shelters was born during volunteering for a “listening ministry” for the homeless when I was out of work a few years ago.

This listening ministry is called Compassion Corner. It goes on at 425 N. Magnolia Ave., in the shadow of the Orange County Courthouse. There is a short video, “If I Hadn’t Met You,” about my fellow “listeners” and the people to whom we listened, and love. We dream that compassion corners spring up around the world.

When you listen, you learn. When you are willing to learn, you communicate respect. I’ve prayed for, and with, people in distress. More important, they’ve prayed for, and prayed over me.

One of the greatest joys is to affirm the dignity of people by listening to and talking with them about what they care about: the Orlando Magic, their children, favorite books and movies. By listening, you discover the gifts and talents that God has given them. You care about them and their stories. They care about you.

The people who live on Orlando’s streets will be there Christmas Day. If it’s not raining then, it might be the day after.

You never know who needs encouragement or a kind word or a pair of socks. Merry Christmas!

Michael Joe Murphy

Michael Joe Murphy

Michael Joe Murphy, a volunteer for the Polis Institute, can be reached at This commentary was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel,0,5134590.story.


Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.


Homeless Living in Woods Aren’t Invisible to God’s Eyes

May 10, 2012

By Nancy Blue

My heart for people living without permanent shelter was always instinctual. God’s timing, and my introduction through volunteering, has nurtured my compassion and commitment and taken me from city streets to the woods.

My initial exposure was through IDignity, which helps to provide IDs and other documentation critical to help the poor. Homeless men and women – and particularly those just out of jail – can be overwhelmed trying to negotiate the complicated system, and to afford documents such drivers licenses, birth certificates and Social Security cards, which many of us take for granted.

Once I realized the importance of basic identification for a person to function in society, I also began to volunteer at Compassion Corner, a Christian drop-in center in downtown Orlando. It is often described as a “listening ministry.”

Nancy Blue and a friend who lives in the woods.

Nancy Blue and a friend who lives in the woods.

If IDignity had opened my eyes, Compassion Corner opened my heart.

I became acquainted with individuals on the street. I heard their stories and learned their names, and my heart stirred with desire to know more about them. I wanted to serve these vulnerable men and women more.

Two years with IDignity and Compassion Corner had planted seeds in my heart. I felt he Holy Spirit tugging to begin a ministry to the homeless. You could say God even provided a MapQuest destination: I was guided to minister to people living in the woods west of Orlando.

I gathered together pastors and deputy sheriffs, learning as much as I could about where and how these men and women live.

Some live in tents or under tarps. Many sleep on the ground. Water moccasins and spiders are abundant. Like those without shelter elsewhere, some camp residents are tormented by addictions, mental-health problems and other issues.

Although the homeless are very visible on the streets of downtown Orlando, these people are generally out of sight, under cover of the woods.

After several months, I took steps to meet them in person and learn about their needs.

The overriding principle in my mind was to answer the questions they were asking, not provide what I assumed they needed. (This is a central tenet of Dignity Serves, and I’d gone through training from the Polis Institute.) I knew in my heart that this was to be a ministry based on personal relations. I was not to be just a person to provide them with “stuff.” I wanted to hear their stories and to let them know that someone cares about them. I wanted to earn their trust.

I offer several brief accounts – not to boast that I am a special person or need credit for entering into these situations – but only that I have followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (I have changed the names of the people, although the stories are true.)


Mary was beaten regularly as a child, but her mother faithfully attended church. As a Christian, I have no argument for her. Only love can win this one, acts of kindness that heal Mary’s perceptions of God.

She has lived most of her life on the streets or in the woods. An adult son stays with her.

Mary is very intelligent and loves to read. She has a library at her campsite of more than 1,000 books. She delights in sharing them with me.

Once Mary got an ID, she obtained her first library card. Her quality of life is greatly enhanced.

Mary and I have formed a great relationship. If the day comes when she wants to discuss “eternal subjects,” I will be there.


Bob has an amazing story, and we had many conversations. Then one day this tattooed, bearded, rough guy mentioned his daughter. After some gentle prompting from me, he shared that he had left his wife 22 years before – and when they parted, he had left behind a 2-year-old daughter. How he wept. What an opening into his heart!

It was not easy to find his wife and daughter. I played detective, and found them on Facebook. Bob and his daughter spoke by phone. Within two months, his daughter and wife came from Missouri to get reacquainted. I was privileged to be there at the reunion – a great blessing. Today, Bob, his wife and his daughter regularly keep in touch. (And he still cries.)


Johnny was a deaf-mute who lived in the woods. He sold scrap metal and dove in dumpsters to survive. I offered to help him get documentation and food stamps. Little did I know that the process would consume countless weeks, with many frustrations. If it were difficult for me to deal with the system, imagine how impossible it would be for Johnny to navigate the maze.

The first step was getting an ID and food stamps for Johnny. Then he could receive SSI Disability, and move to a small duplex. I became his payee (a person designated by Social Security to manage money for one who is not able to).

As Johnny settled in, we dared to think all was well. Then he began complaining of leg pain. I drove him to the doctor. His leg was white, and his arteries had collapsed. I immediately took him to ORMC, where doctors amputated Johnny’s leg. Suddenly it was a whole new world for both of us. Had gangrene set in, he would have died. Johnny’s story is far from over.

■ ■ ■

My interactions with some begin with a need: providing extra food, helping with applications for food stamps, or providing blankets, tents and mosquito spray. There are many people, though, I have helped by not trying to fix what’s wrong, but by recognizing their importance as God’s people – we are equal in His eyes despite our circumstances in life.

I believe God is glorified when we listen and enter into relationships with those who are scorned or often forgotten.

I could never have anticipated all of the difficulties or the amazing blessings that have accompanied my call to serve men and women in the woods.

Nancy Blue can be reached at When she isn’t working with homeless men and women in the woods, Nancy Blue and her husband, Randy, are musicians (

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.