On panhandlers

Dear readers, what is your attitude towards panhandlers?

My husband and I have adopted different attitudes, with him preferring to completely ignore them, and me preferring to politely refuse them. I want to acknowledge their personhood, he is afraid of encouraging them to accost us further.

Maybe that doesn’t make a difference, as neither of us are offering money. I’ve given money to panhandlers a few times over… ten years, but this is an area where I reach moral satiation practically immediately. Giving money to panhandlers feels so bad, because I overthink it afterwards. My whole life I’ve been told that charity feels good but you know what it doesn’t so stop lying to me.

For context, I’m in the San Francisco bay area, which has a very high density of homeless people. It’s a combination of (relatively) sympathetic attitudes towards the right of homeless people to exist, and longstanding policies that stifle housing construction.

Also, the weather is livable year-round.

Some people’s attitudes towards panhandlers are informed by concerns of safety. Fearing for my safety is not really experience I can speak to, although I can say that homeless people are far more likely to yell homophobic slurs at me. To be fair, I think that’s mostly because they’re more likely to confront people on the street period. I am told that homeless people themselves experience significantly more harassment.

Another common concern is that panhandlers will spend the money on drugs. Personally, I really don’t care. Well, I care about it in the same way that I care about the opioid epidemic that kills tens of thousands of people. I’m concerned about it as a public health issue, but financially starving people out of their drug problems is a bizarre and cruel solution that we would not even consider for any other group.

Panhandling is obviously not an economically productive line of work, but sounds as soul-draining as the worst of jobs, so I’m happy that they make money from it. If so many people can’t find gainful employment, then it sounds like the market is telling us that not everyone needs to be economically productive, and we shouldn’t punish people for following what the market wants.

But what would be even better, is if they could make money without the soul-draining labor, and without me going through this awkward social interaction that feels so bad. Like if we had a welfare system, that sure would be something. For now, there are organizations to donate to, and I will seriously consider that option when I am monied. Also, pro-housing groups, which I donate to already.


  1. Dunc says

    I give money to them regularly (as in, I have a line-item in my budget for it). I don’t worry about “encouraging” them because if sitting on the street begging – in Scotland, in the rain and snow, in the middle of winter – isn’t discouraging enough, then I don’t know what could be. I don’t give a shit what they spend it on. Hell, I’m sure that if I was living like that, I’d be doing all the drugs I could lay my hands on. I don’t believe for an instant that anybody does it as a “lifestyle choice”, and I regard it as a moral stain on our society that we suffer people to be reduced to such extremes. You never used to see it. Not here, anyway… Now I judge the state of the economy by how far out of the centre of town you see them.

  2. Curious Digressions says

    I’ve given people rides, food, and occasionally money. I don’t carry cash often either, so it’s easier to say, “Sorry, don’t have any.” When I’m with my daughter, who is 8, and we’re in an area with a homeless population, she’ll ask for money to give. If I have something, I’ll give it to her to give to encourage compassion. It’s also a good opportunity to talk about privilege and kindness. It isn’t any of my business what they do with them money afterwards. Once I give it away, it isn’t my money. I’m uncomfortable with the concept of “worthy poor” verses “unworthy poor”. The idea that actions or decisions can make someone unworthy of basic human decency is gross. That also implies that only bad actions and stupid decisions can lead to hardship.

    My husband is opposed to giving money to individual panhandlers, although he donates regularly to a local homeless shelter. His comments indicate that he thinks that people choose it as an easy lifestyle choice and make lots of money for doing nothing – that may not be fair, but that’s what it sounds like to me. He suffers from growing up privileged with conservative – dedicatedly bigoted – parents. He tries to move past that, but it’s a stumbling block.

    I live in an area with few panhandlers. It’s a medium sized city, but we have literally killer winters for 5 months. City ordinances aren’t particularly friendly to the homeless either, although we do have a passable network of shelters and services. A vacation to a nearby Big City showed me that I would have to change my interactions and frame of mind if the interactions were more frequent or aggressive. Arriving at our destination, I gave away $40 in 8 minutes. I also felt crumby and guilty about it. I haven’t reflected on it a lot, but the panhandlers at home are generally polite and express gratitude. The people at the tourist destination were demanding and intimidating. Later, I did give $20 to a guy who’s pitch was both complex, well done, and entertaining. It wasn’t plausible, but it was impressive. I didn’t feel badly about that.

  3. says

    I remember people getting outraged when an auto dealership offered a panhandler a job and he refused it because he made more money panhandling than they were offering. That seemed like a rational decision on the panhandler’s part to me.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    I live in a mid-sized American college town. Panhandlers congregate downtown and on street corners, and I try to keep fivers in my wallet to give them if I stop at a corner conveniently close to one or pass one on the rare occasion when I go downtown. I especially try to give money to buskers or people with a well-written sign. That’s maybe one or two fivers a week, though. If I lived in a situation where I passed many homeless every day, I’m sure I’d feel differently.

    I also try to attend and support community organizations that are doing something about the problem. I had a student a few years ago who’d had a great job, then lost everything due to killing someone DWI, spent over a decade in prison, and was homeless after release. An organization took him in, helped him get a job, bought him new clothes, and eventually helped him go to my class in community college. They’re people, ya know?

  5. says

    I concur 100% with Dunc @1, save only swap “Scotland” for “Canada”.

    I have held a lot of conflicting opinions about this, and I don’t always give them money for various reasons, but those reasons don’t involve judging. Compassion – not pity, compassion, an understanding that they are people as much as me and the only thing that really separates us is luck – ultimately won that war.

    Sometimes a panhandler will be almost pathetically grateful for a simple fiver and it just racks me with guilt that I have so much wealth that I can easily give away what might wind up being that person’s only meal that day. And I’m not wealthy; I am nothing but a middle-class salary worker with a currently-valued skillset.

  6. milu says

    Oh yeah I just give them change pretty consistently unless i’m flat out. At some point in early adulthood I had all these involved inner debates about the ethics of giving to panhandlers but… In the end the only way that leaves me feeling OK with the interaction is to default to fishing for a coin, politely wishing them a good day (I try to refrain from wishing them luck or courage, which feels vaguely condescending unless they expressed a corresponding sentiment themselves) and moving on. If they sound particularly desperate or ask if I can spare a bigger amount, I’ll tend to oblige based on my (extremely limited) budget, rather than by trying to assess their honesty—an exercise I’m terrible at, and which will definitely leave me feeling dirty and judgemental and preposterous.

    I’m from a liberal christian family with a tradition of charity work, so i guess that much has stuck hasn’t it 😀

  7. invivoMark says

    How is this a question? Of course you treat them like humans, deserving of respect and dignity. If they address me, I’m going to acknowledge them.

    I also don’t see the problem with “falling for scams” or worrying they’re not going to spend the money “wisely” (by whatever classist judgment of wisdom one would choose to use). If you’ve given a panhandler money, then you’ve given a small fraction of your wealth to someone who has far less than you do. You’ve enriched their life, probably much more than the money would have enriched yourself.

    I live very near a metro stop, and there’s a small community of homeless who live there in tents. I don’t often give money (I don’t carry cash much), but I will probably look into donating goods to the community.

  8. TGAP Dad says

    Where I live (mid Michigan), we have two types I’ve encountered: 1) the ones at traffic lights holding signs, and 2) the ones who approach me in stores and fast food restaurants. I seem to have some magnetism that draws these people (type 2) to my wife and me when we’re out. The pitches all share some common elements: just need a couple dollars for gas (or bus) to get somewhere for some urgent need (pregnant girlfriend/wife, insulin treatment…). Balking at the first always, ALWAYS brings a jesus-laced appeal. This is where I firmly point out the folly of expecting everyone to share their religious persuasions. They inevitably then move quickly on to another mark.

  9. says

    I think you’re more right than your spouse.
    That said, occasionally I’ll give some change. But I will also take them to the nearest pizzeria/Subway/Dunkin’ and let them buy a sandwich or a couple slices, because I can. (This is limited by things such as time…)

  10. Mara Jade says

    I’m sympathetic to your husband. I’ve had to deal with some aggressive panhandlers who didn’t start out aggressive. They only became aggressive once they realized I would give money. They would demand more money, follow me, become hostile, whatever. Some people will get like that if they think you’re a pushover. I eventually ceased giving money to panhandlers. That was not the majority of the panhandlers, but it was enough that I stopped giving. I had to be safe and protect myself (or at least this was my reasoning).

    From what I’ve heard in the past, most panhandlers are genuinely in need. They have serious medical issues (often mental) that keep them from working, and they really don’t make much from the panhandling. My own theory is that the most successful panhandlers are also the ones who probably need the money the least. I remember having a very frank conversation with an alcoholic panhandler. I forget how much money it was, but it was enough to sustain a person. People would also buy her food, including bags of groceries. On top of all that, she had subsidized housing, Medicare, social security, and probably whatever other benefits she could get approved for. I was astounded by her, but I didn’t judge her too harshly. I felt bad for her. She was clearly making more money than me, but she was also drunk all the time. I would rather be poor and not an alcoholic than rich and drunk every day.

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