Sunday, July 18, 2010


Panhandling has become a commonplace practice in the neighborhood where we live; not the neighborhood exactly, but the busy intersections nearby. The subdivision we live in is relatively close to a mall, shopping centers, hardware stores, etc. and these businesses attract high numbers of people and make easy pickings for panhandlers. Over the last four or five years the occasional, lone panhandler has blossomed into pairs of panhandlers. The every-once-in-a-while panhandler has turned into the-almost-constant-fixture panhandler.

This phenomenon doesn't seem to be focused in our particular location. As part of the job I have, I drive throughout our county on a daily basis during the school year and almost every busy streetlight is manned by one person or another with a sign describing their predicament, asking for money and invariably ending with "God Bless". I've seen one woman in a business skirt and heels darting between stopped traffic with a sign plastered with pictures of her younger brothers who she needed help caring for. I've seen signs advertising the panhandler's status as a veteran. I've seen signs saying that the panhandler really needed a drink.

Today, while leaving Wal-Mart, a young couple was panhandling with this sign:

College Graduates
Rent Past Due
Almost Homeless
God Bless

For whatever reason, their sign did not inspire my pity. The sight of young, able-bodied people turning to panhandling as a way to pay the rent didn't incline me to be sympathetic. DH joked that maybe it was an experiment for their sociology class to see what sort of response they would get.

Panhandling usually invokes the twin powers of suspicion and guilt within me; suspicion because I have a sense that most panhandlers are simply manipulating people for money and guilt because I feel as if I should be more kind and generous in my appraisal of them and my response to them. These two feeling usually see-saw back and forth within me, causing me sometimes to avoid the panhandlers and sometimes to give money to them.

While sitting at a red light at one of the frequent panhandling intersections near our home, I watched a man walking up the sidewalk. He was muscular and somewhat fit. His clothes were slightly bedraggled and his face was covered with rough stubble. He eventually reached the intersection, plopped down an army green duffel bag and pulled out a cardboard sign. It said he was an injured, homeless veteran from Iraq.

He proceeded to work the lanes of stopped traffic with a limping, hobbling gait, one that was nowhere to be seen a minute earlier when I had watched him approaching on the sidewalk. I shook my head in frustration and made a point to remember him so that I wouldn't get suckered if he happened to become a frequent fixture.

DH is much more zen about the whole thing. His feeling is that we have no way of picking out the "deserving" panhandlers from the non-deserving panhandlers so he'll just give them a small amount of money, maybe a few dollars, and not worry about it. I tend to wonder if giving money to panhandlers encourages the wrong type of people to continue panhandling.

The panhandlers sometimes become more bold and instead of passively standing at an intersection, they'll directly approach and ask for money, like the lady who struck up a conversation in the cereal aisle while I was shopping one day. A brief question about whether a particular brand of cereal was any good became long litany of the troubles she was facing; legal troubles, the water being shut off, feeding her fourteen-year-old, her unemployed spouse. I offered her some information, directing her to food pantries that I knew of and free clinics for medical help which also offer social services, taking advantage of the water and electric company's charity care. Every piece of information I gave her was met with an excuse about why she "couldn't" go here or there.

Financially I wasn't in a position to help her. I didn't have $80 free to pay her water bill, or $100 to buy her groceries. I didn't even have cash in my purse at the time, because I almost always use my debit card and hardly ever have actual paper money on me. Sensing that I couldn't give her what she wanted or needed, she moved on. I finished my shopping and then spotted her, this time with her husband/boyfriend(?) near the checkout line. I paid for my things, and got $10 in cash from the cashier and caught her on my way out of the store. She seemed genuinely grateful and I left not knowing whether I had been gullible or kind....or both.

Having my kids with me when these things happen tends to make me be more generous and more cautious. Not wanting to make my children cynics, like myself, I try to go out of my way to be more generous. On the other hand, having them with me when someone approaches me directly also makes me very uncomfortable because I have no idea how erratic a panhandler might be, and what their response will be if I don't have money to give to them.

How do you handle panhandlers? Do you respond differently if you have children with you?


DH said...

Has the increase in panhandling that you've observed correlated with the downturn in the economy? Like the two college students we saw today, I wonder if more people are considering panhandling out of frustration, necessity, or boredom. The cynical side of me says that it's an easy, under-the-table way of supplementing unemployment income.

But it's easy to become cynical about panhandlers and to question their motivations or the genuineness of their plights. The ideal situation would be to have a conversation with each person and try to get to the heart of the matter. Oftentimes, as in the case of sitting in one's car at a stoplight, this isn't possible, and other times, as you described in your grocery store incident, even once you've engaged someone in conversation it can still be difficult to determine where the truth is.

Perhaps my decision to just hand out a small amount of money to whoever asks for it is a cop out - a sign of an unwillingness to truly examine the situation. Perhaps it's naivete - being duped by those who are exploiting the "innocent". I know in my heart it's just an attempt to offer some small form of assistance to someone who might need it. Goodness knows it won't break my bank to be out a few dollars, and hopefully it will genuinely help the person.

James Pate said...

I've especially felt bad about ignoring panhandlers when coming out of church. But I don't want to deal with them. And so I assuage my guilt by donating to my local food bank.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

When we visited Chester there was a young man outside the castle hawking a socialist newspaper. He would start each sentence with a plaintive "Please!" that ripped one's heart out, even while disapproving of him. I thought how beggars in earlier times must have perfected this, find the note and appearance that would elicit pity even against one's will. For them, it was life or death.

I also felt some contempt and rage at gypsies in Romania who would break the legs of their children to maike them more pathetic, and thus better beggars. But when I saw how some of them lived, and reflected on how sometimes it might be the only way for your child to survive, I grew confused.

Yes, some get rich off begging, even in desperately poor places, though that seems so impossible to Americans that it does not even register. I would imagine, however, that few American panhandlers do more than scrape by, having found a way to keep themselves in wine and shelter with little effort.

James Pate said...

I wouldn't want to be peddling a socialist ANYTHING around you, Assistant Village Idiot! :P;)