He is dirty, smelly, and intoxicated. And though no one openly acknowledges his presence, he makes it known with his incessant requests for money. It is a scenario that plays out on an endless loop in cities all across America. Yet most people have no idea how to respond.
As a self-proclaimed advocate, I field a lot of questions about homelessness. More than any other subject, people want to know how to deal with panhandlers and if they should give to them. My short answer is no, do not give them anything. While this may not sit well with some homeless people, nor with some homeless advocates, I have my reasons.
Within the total homeless population, panhandlers are a small minority. And of all panhandlers, not all of them are homeless. Even the homeless who do not panhandle find panhandlers to be a nuisance. Panhandlers are just as likely to panhandle other homeless people. And the non-panhandling homeless know that they are often judged negatively by the actions of panhandlers. Of the panhandlers with homes, most are usually living in less than desirable conditions. But that does not mean they panhandle as a means of improving their situation.
Nearly every act of panhandling is inspired by an overwhelming desire for drugs or alcohol. In all likelihood the money, food, and whatever else is given to panhandlers, will only go towards aiding and abetting the illness of addiction. Often called “a slow suicide,” addictions can kill. And I, for one, do not want to contribute to anyone's untimely demise. I do not think any sane person would.
Panhandlers have more contact with the general population than any other segment of the homeless population. And, it is the panhandler you will find most often publicly intoxicated, urinating and defecating on sidewalks, yelling and fighting in parks, and committing other acts of anti-social behavior. Most of the stereotyping and other negative impressions of homeless people come by way of panhandlers.
Additionally, the act of panhandling is degrading and humiliating. Putting one's self through such a demeaning exercise, day after day, must develop within panhandlers a great deal of self loathing, which could easily turn into a total disregard for all people. It seems a natural digression that panhandlers become the most anti-social homeless people. Yet, when sober, if only because their panhandling efforts fail, they behave not unlike other civilized people.
In desperate times I have considered panhandling. Yet, I was never able to bring myself to do it. My needs were never significant enough to debase myself in that manner. But I do have empathy for those who have. And I do all I can to encourage panhandlers to get the help they need. That begins with saying no.
(Photo by: Jeff Kubina)