So what is the answer to stopping panhandling? Or should it be stopped? Why am I even asking the question?
Because in the past, few people stood on street corners holding signs outlining their particular dire circumstances and asking for money, and now there are many. And because it’s uncomfortable to drive past the same people over the course of years and watch them lose weight, become weather-beaten, look like they’re suffering, and not know what, if anything, you can do.
In an earlier blog I talked about a female panhandler who — due to illness — weighed 68 pounds and needed money for food. She received medical care and had housing but the state government had taken away her food stamps. She didn’t complain or cry, merely appeared resigned. I gave her a little money and then returned to share information on feeding programs and a food bank.
Last week, on a morning walk, I encountered another panhandler. I told him I was on a walk for exercise and carried no money. He was in his fifties and appeared well-fed. He was holding about $30 in one hand. He told me he desperately needed money, because he had cancer. He had medical care, but it wouldn’t cover chemotherapy. He tried to cry to make his point. He complained that no one was stopping to donate. At that hour, cars whizzed by, presumably carrying people to work. I told him I thought he’d chosen a bad intersection. “No,” he said. “People here won’t stop because they’re all rich and greedy.” (As an aside, I don’t think he lived here.) As he tried to cry again, he said, “I have two little ones at home and they’re terrified they won’t get another meal.” The light changed and I stepped off the curb. He said, “I really need you to bring back some money. Today. I need a couple hundred. If you would just come back and bring me a couple hundred…” I kept walking.
So why was I interested in helping the first panhandler and not the next? Because I was judging them: one honest panhandler and one phony. But who am I to make that call?
I described my two experiences to a man who works in the mental health field. “If you want to give them money and it makes you feel better, do it. If you think you’re improving their lives in any real way, you’re wrong.”
I recently spoke to a woman in another city who was part of a group working to change public response to panhandling. “Half the city wants to hand out money to all of them,” she said, “and the other half calls the police when they see one. There has to be a middle ground.”
I’m not sure that anyone knows what that middle ground is. Meanwhile, I’ll follow my instincts.
Ann, we give out plastic ziplock bags that contain energy bars, socks, water, personal hygiene products and a list of agencies located on the Eastside that can provide assistance. We refer to this program as our Neighbors in Need through St. Thomas Episcopal Church. You can stop by the church and pick up a bag or two to keep on hand in your car. I had one man burst into tears because he was in desperate need of socks! I haven’t seen him since but felt that I was in the right place at the right time. Love your writing! Marilyn Pedersen
Very creative and thoughtful. thanks for sharing, Marilyn.
I had a friend who was in a position to give folks short-term employment. She approached a panhandler with an offer and he gruffly told her to “get away, you’re ruining my business.” But I try to remember that he was just one person and that even he may have been mentally ill. It’s very easy to judge the homeless and it makes us feel better (“That could never happen to me!”). I like the suggestion of handing out other things besides cash because I would hate to enable someone’s drug addiction. I’ve also been reading a lot about the systemic reasons for homelessness; most recently, an article that suggested that our society has decided that all the blame for poverty is on the shoulders of the poor and not the systems we’ve erected that proactively shunt people there. Thanks again for a thoughtful article Ann.
I live on the outskirts of Balimore and go to the city frequently so as you can imagine, there is an abundance of panhandling. I too am torn about what to do. Mostly I just move on and feel guilty but occasionally I offer to buy a sandwich for a woman who says she is very hungry. Once I watched a woman gobble the sandwich as if she hadn’t eaten in a month. Another time after buying a woman a sandwich, she approached me again almost immediately saying she was very hungry. I reminded her I had been the sandwich lady and she apologized and moved on to pester others. There is a custodian at church who told me he had been homeless and had depended on the organizations we support who feed th homeless but had not been a panhandler. He told me all panhandlers are phonies–many are not really homeless but use panhandling as a lucrative business. I try to keep that in mind when I am stopped at a traffic light and I am approached by the inevitable bum with the homeless sign.
I’ve heard the same thing, that you shouldn’t give money to individuals, but to the organizations that provide assistance. Problem is there are some problems that no organization can solve.