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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Roadside Beggars

I was driving downtown and listening to my car radio last week when something along the street caught my eye. I noticed two young people, a physically-able-looking couple, working the local traffic light for handouts with their "Homeless- Need Help!" sign. I felt an old disgust well up from within and an urge to roll down the window of my vehicle and tell them to "Get a Job!" I didn't do that and instead drove away thinking about the perceived absurdity of the situation I had so innocently encountered. That mini-rage lasted about two traffic lights, and then I returned my attention again to the radio station. Once home, I decided to explore the reason for my contempt of these two strangers, so I turned to the Internet for some information about panhandling. In one article, I discovered support for my negativity, and I thought I might share some of the content in the blog. Why say no to panhandling? According to studies, giving money to panhandlers does not help those in need because:
  • Cash given to panhandlers will most likely be used to buy alcohol or drugs.
  • Most panhandlers are NOT homeless.
  • For some, panhandling is a profession and at times, studies show, a lucrative one.
  • Homelessness is not the problem for truly needy panhandlers, but rather a symptom of underlying problems. They need help, not handouts.
  • Nothing in the research really surprised me. In fact, the information confirmed my beliefs about those who beg for money on the streets. Then, I realized that panhandlers are what panhandlers are-- nothing more. All the negative concepts I felt for these complete strangers had originated in my brain. I knew nothing of their true homeless situation, nothing of their past, nothing of their physical or mental conditions, nothing of their criminal records. I hated them for holding a cardboard sign with some writing: this was all I knew about their lives and their character. With no malice toward me, they had become my sworn enemies. I don't think they could have harmed someone with the cardboard. This certainly wouldn't have been my choice of weapon for a car jacking or a kidnapping. They had not been aggressive or blatantly rude to me in action or language. As far as the truthfulness of the words on the sign, I must admit even if the words represented lies (and, I had no reason to believe they were false), many roadside billboards have been guilty of committing every fallacy known, yet in my common acceptance of advertising deception, those billboards had never really upset me like that little cardboard sign. This problem with panhandling, it seems, was all in my mind's eye. (1) Studies do seem to confirm that many panhandlers will use money to buy drugs and alcohol. That seems to be reason enough for many people to ignore beggars. Still, the assumption of where the money likely will be spent rests with the giver. We seem to worry much less about these addictions when making cheap purchases at junk sales or flea markets. A donation or a gift requires no assurance of reciprocation. In reality, their addiction may lead them to stealing, so maybe a little change will keep them from criminal activity or from harming others. Do most address the problem of gambling addition with the zest they give to drugs and alcohol? (2) It also seems true that most panhandlers are not homeless. One report stated, "Instead of begging for help, a number of homeless manage to hold down a minimum wage job or two." According to the Homelessness in Santa Clara County Project, in 1995, 25 percent of homeless in Santa Clara County were working. However, a part-time job paying $5 an hour barely covers food and other basic necessities short of housing." So, the assumption that all panhandlers are non-working bums is not true. Does the fact that panhandling may help contribute to horrible wages earned by the working class bother people? (3) True, panhandling is a lucrative profession for some. Yet, Miami reports that the average collected is $35 bucks per person per day. As Michael S. Scott, the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, says in his online article "Panhandling": Estimates vary from a couple of dollars (U.S.) a day on the low end, to $20 to $50 a day in the mid-range, to about $300 a day on the high end. Women, especially those who have children with them, and panhandlers who appear to be disabled tend to receive more money. For this reason, some panhandlers pretend to be disabled and/or war veterans. Others use pets as a means of evoking sympathy from passersby. Panhandlers' regular donors can account for up to half their receipts. If regular donors make up for so much of panhandling income, why are the rest of us worried about where the money goes and who is giving it away? Generosity needs no public explanation. Too, panhandlers don't make enough to save for housing, and carrying money around can only lead to being robbed, and possibly to being beaten up in the process. When faced with bans, panhandlers cite their First Amendment right to protection of free speech, and it seems they do have the right to freely speak to people. Evidently, some are better salesmen than others. (4) And, yes, these people need help. To address some of the underlying problems of many panhandlers (e.g., substance abuse, lack of marketable skills, mental illness, inadequate housing), police may need to advocate new social services, or help coordinate existing services. Police can be and have long been instrumental in advocating and coordinating social services for panhandlers, and in referring people to those services. Yet, what is the public response to such social services? Usually, it is negative because new services mean higher taxes for staff, facilities, and operational expenses. Also, many people do not want public housing and mental illness facilities in their neighborhoods. A stigma exists for such association. Actually, ignoring the "homeless" signs, the more affluent can easily pass the problems of the needy caught in the underbelly of our cities by "just saying no." Those who have never felt substandard living are not the most sympathetic to those who suffer. Aren't these panhandlers really, at most, just a small nuisance in our lives? Perhaps our ignorance of their conditions has led to unwarranted scorn and neglect. First impressions can be very deceiving.
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