Assumptions about Panhandlers

panhandler

My small New Hampshire town recently lost an expensive lawsuit to the ACLU, which was defending a panhandler who claimed that he had been harassed by the police.  The police had told him that standing on the sidewalk and holding a sign asking for money was a crime, which it isn’t–yet.  In the next town over, they are considering making it illegal.

These kinds of laws are usually justified as public safety concerns–a driver stopping to give money may be rear-ended, or a panhandler walking into the road may be hit.  When I researched it a bit, though, I barely found any mentions of accidents caused by panhandling.  This seems to be a way to hide the real purpose of the law.

The other motives for a law like this seem to be (a) it makes people uncomfortable, (b) it makes the town look bad, and (c) they’re mostly scammers or addicts.  None of these seem sufficient to warrant a law, in my opinion; but the issue is bringing out a lot of other ugly attitudes and confusing questions.  I certainly don’t have any solutions for homelessness, but I have few thoughts on how we should consider this problem:

    • I’m not naive; I understand that some of these people are scammers, and quite a few are addicts, looking for quick cash for their next fix.  Nevertheless, I can’t quite square it with my conscience to never give to these people.  If they use my money for something bad, I don’t think my connection to the evil is direct enough to make me morally culpable (unless it was really, really obvious, like if they were already drunk).  And with that out of the way, I can’t believe that it can do my soul anything but good to offer charity in this way.  (Unless, of course, my motive is just to feel good about myself.)  Even if 9 out of 10 are fakes, what if the one I refuse happens to be the one genuinely in need of help?  (One of my friends pointed me to a lovely Fulton Sheen quote, which says much the same: “I can’t take the chance.”)
    • Most people seem to think that they can tell at a glance whether the panhandler is a fake or not: “He’s young and strong;” “He was smoking a cigarette;” “His clothes were awfully clean for someone who can’t afford food.”  “I’m not going to give money to a bum drinking Dunkin Donuts.”  The problem with this is that looks are deceiving.  Someone may appear strong and healthy, but be suffering from severe mental illness that prevents him from getting or keeping a job.  And just because someone owns a phone, or a cigarette, or some nice clothes, doesn’t mean that he bought them himself; they might have been given to him.  Likewise, he may have been bought that coffee, or he may have used the money he was given to buy Dunkin Donuts, because it was in walking distance and he really wanted something hot.
    • Then again, there’s this objection: “We have agencies for this.”  (Am I the only one who thinks this sounds a little too much like Scrooge?)  “Give your money to the homeless shelter instead.”  This may be the right way to go; at least we can be pretty sure that homeless shelters and other agencies are using the money correctly.  But the fact remains that a lot of people are homeless because of mental illness, and someone with severe mental problems is not necessarily going to be able to seek out the help he needs, or be able to follow the rules in a shelter or complete the qualifications for aid.  For example, imagine someone with severe anxiety entering a welfare office: it’s hot, it’s crowded, there are kids screaming, there are 3 different languages being spoken at once, there’s a complicated sign-in process, and the lady at the counter wants you to show 5 different documents to prove that you’re eligible for aid.  That would send most people running!  Then again, homeless shelters often don’t have any room, and they’re often dangerous, especially for young women.  (“Many can’t go there, and many would rather die…”)

Again, I don’t have any solutions.  (Also, this is the perspective of someone in a small town; this is a much different issue in the big city.)  But what I would like to see is a more human and accurate portrayal of panhandlers.  Enough assumptions and speculations; let’s only say what we really know.

(image license)

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12 thoughts on “Assumptions about Panhandlers

  1. Thanks for this…. I am one of this people who hold a sign in Charlotte. Yes I do own a phone, but I am also 9 months pregnant and me and my family are staying in a hotel (on the worst side of town.) yes I have met drug addicts flying a sign, but the truth is they all need the money. What they choose to spend it on is a different story however. Everything you said was dead on the money! I was just denied an income based apartment because of an eviction. The woman’s shelters does not have space and not only that I was assaulted there when I was five months pregnant then kicked out because I chose to defend myself. I am very willing to work, but I am currently pregnant and have a shoplifting misdemeanor on my record from 16. So its not easy. And its defiantly not easy when you don’t know where your child is going to stay while you work. The way you describe all of this I would swear that you were a panhandler. But you’re just a thoughtful and beautiful person. May God bless you. And I wiz there were more people like you in the world!

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  2. Thanks for posting this. My husband made me fall in love with him all over again, when I learned that he had been taking a homeless man out to lunch on his lunch breakes when commuting to a big city. I think the man appreciated someone caring for him as a person, so often if people give a begger any money they won’t even make eye contact with them. I can’t imagine how dehumanizing that must be.

    On a totally different topic, I am organizing a bloghop on Maternal Depression for the end of May and wanted to invite you to participate. I couldn’t find a better way to get in contact with you than leaving a comment. If you are interested please email me at halfkindled (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!
    Katherine

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  3. Sure, panhandlers can be addicts, and as for scams…. boy, what a crummy way to bilk a few dollars out of people, standing in the blazing sun amid exhaust fumes for hours. The flip side is that you may actually be helping someone. Maybe they are trying to get enough cash to fill up their gas tank to go to a job interview. Maybe they are trying to scrape together enough to pay for the crappy motel room that is keeping them out of the homeless shelter.

    I once offered a panhandler some of my groceries and he had to refuse them because he had lost all his teeth. “Could you eat a banana?” “Oh yeah, I love bananas!” So I gave him my bananas but I felt just awful for him. So many of these people are going through trials that most of the middle class (i.e. me) can’t even imagine.

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    • Yeah, I have a very hard time understanding why you would put up with the humiliation, as well as the physical stress, if you really didn’t need to. I guess there are some people out there who do it, but I have a hard time believing it’s widespread.

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  4. I talked to my son-in-law about this once. He said, “You know what? If I had his life, I would probably want a beer too. I don’t mind buying him a beer.” 🙂 Just a thought.

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    • I’ve had that thought too! I do think that if he’s going to buy a beer, that’s one thing, but if he’s an alcoholic, that’s different–he’s harming himself. But along the same lines, I wouldn’t mind if he wanted to use the money I bought him on a cappuchino from Dunkin Donuts, or a donut, or whatever–how hard it must be to always have to spend the little money you have on only the bare essentials.

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  5. I’ve often thought about this too. I have so much fear built up in me from a lifetime of being taught not to give to these people that I see every single day. It keeps nagging on my heart, and I’ve been slowly trying to give food when I get the chance. I just feel so rotten. But I’m very happy to have read this, and I hope that I can be a more prepared giver in the future.

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    • Thank you! I’m trying to be more prepared too–I don’t have a reason to be nervous, but I often avoid just out of embarassment or not knowing what to say, or being afraid of offending them. I’m going to try offering something like Clif bars, or maybe asking what I can do to help. The fact that it’s going out of my comfort zone–as opposed to just donating to a charity–makes me feel like maybe it is something that Christ is asking me to do.

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