Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Do You Give To Panhandlers?

I grew up in a very small town, and went to college in a medium-sized town, so I never really ran into the phenomenon of panhandling until I did study abroad my junior year of college.  I went to college in Oxford, England, and we were warned from practically the second we stepped off the plane never to give any money to panhandlers.

We were told, at least in this situation, that people who operate in Oxford near the shopping district and universities are 'professional panhandlers.' They sit on the sidewalk all day collecting money, and then get their Lexus (it was always a Lexus) out of the parking garage and drive back to their stately home.  This was an image that was pounded into my head by not only people associated with my school, but by locals I befriended over the course of the semester.

Personally, I'd rather go to a regular job than sit on a sidewalk all day, but I'm sure that the story that I was told can't be the whole story.

Certainly I've encountered panhandlers in other situation as well and I don't think I've ever given them anything.  There are tons of professional beggars all over the major cities in Europe, and if they pick you out as a tourist, they're actually rather rude if you don't give them anything.  I almost gave leftovers from a restaurant to a man in Washington DC, but I was worried that that would seem condescending.

Since the economy has been in this downward spiral, with Rhode Island hit particularly hard on the unemployment front, I've seen more and more people out at intersections holding signs and saying 'anything helps.'  I always feel guilty and avert my eyes, but I also had it drilled into my head by my Republican mother that if you give people who are down and out cash, they just spend it on booze.  So what to do in these situations?

I want to give something, but I almost never carry any cash, and I also don't want to be an enabler/ get taken advantage of.  I feel very bad for people outside in all weather just asking for help.  I can't imagine that it's very easy, psychologically, to stand up and beg for help, but maybe I'm just thinking like a sucker.  I'd rather give food than cash, because I'm sure that even if they're going to a soup kitchen, they're still probably hungry, but is that a rude thing to do?  I'm genuinely curious--do other people give?  Sometimes?  All the time?  What's your personal philosophy when it comes to people with signs and a hard luck story?


  1. If I have food in my car (such as I just went grocery shopping), then I will usually try to give them something. no money though.

  2. I know a few people who keep "blessings bags" in their cars. It's usually made up of granola bars and/or other small snacky type things and toiletries. I don't necessarily think it's a terrible idea to give to the homeless but I would much rather it be through some sort of charity or volunteer work. Then I know exactly where my money/supplies/time is going.

  3. If I see someone with a sign and I have cash, I give them at least a dollar or two. Always. Personally, I don't really care what they spend it on - if I was homeless, I'd probably want to drink too! I feel like I'm giving for the right reasons and it's not my fault if the person chooses not to use it wisely. If even one person has been able to buy food with the money I gave them, then every dollar I've ever handed out has been worth it. I'm just glad I live in a rural area and not a city because I'd probably go broke!

  4. I'm not good at giving, cause I'm often so broke myself, but I do think it's interesting that there's an instinct to care what someone spends a gift on in this situation, but not in other giving situations. A gift is simply that, and what the person uses that gift for shouldn't matter. I'm glad that the gifts we got for our wedding didn't come with "You can't use it on booze," cause we certainly did for some of it on our honeymoon :)

  5. @Fargo--fair point! My mother always said that giving them money that they would spend on booze would be enabling them, and doing more harm than good, though I agree with Andrea--if I was homeless, I'd want a damn drink every now and then.

    1. Yeah, when I was unemployed, I smoked even though we literally couldn't afford it because it was a coping mechanism. Now that I'm employed, no smoking for three months! When life is crapping on ya, sometimes you need some alcohol or nicotine just to get through to the next day. Chicken and egg I guess.

  6. When McDonalds used to have those little tear off books of gift certificates I would hand out a couple of those. Then at least I knew they could pick a couple of things off of the dollar menu and have a meal.

  7. Today, just a block away from the Target store I was headed to, there was a man standing there with a sign that said "Please Help. Need food or work." The entire time I was walking through Target, buying silly things like Marshmallow Hot Cocoa Poptarts, the image of him standing there was burned into my head.

    As I was shopping, I picked out two apples, a banana, two cans of ravioli, and a box of granola bars to give him. I also purchased a $10 gift card to put in the bag. I know he won't spend it on alcohol or cigarettes because our Target doesn't carry any. He seemed genuine, he seemed like he was in need, and giving to him made me feel better. I figure that even if he was scamming me, at least it made me feel like I had done the right thing, and that in itself was worth it to me.

  8. I gave $5 to a young man 2 days ago. I struggled with the idea for a moment. We don't have a lot of money, and I don't usually have cash. Every dollar counts in our budget. It was dark and I could tell he was cold. I'm fortunate in that we have a roof and food and my girls will have a Christmas. I gave him the only cash I had and wished I had more to give.

  9. My family gives food and/or drinks (a hot cup of coffee, etc). Don't feel right giving money for some reason. Probably 'cuz I know how quickly a dollar will fly out of MY pocket - at least I go home knowing the person's stomach isn't rumbling anymore.