“Do you give to panhandlers?” one of my co-workers asked as we sat chatting about working in the sector and homelessness and what it means to end it. She is new to the homeless serving sector having come from the management team of a large retailer. She tells me how working at the Foundation has changed her perspective, helped her respond more compassionately, but still, she doesn’t feel comfortable constantly giving money to people on the street.
I never know if I’m doing the right thing, my co-worker said.
And I understand.
I used to give to people on the street who asked for spare change, and stopped. I never felt like I was doing enough. The giving always left me feeling empty. So now, I smile and acknowledge someone’s presence and tell them I don’t have any change, or that I can’t give them any money. But I always acknowledge them. Always let them know, I see you. You are real to me. Not a problem on the street I need to ignore. You are visible.
Several years ago, while teaching a class in self-esteem at the homeless shelter where I used to work, one of the students shared the story of finding himself at the far end of the city with no money to pay for a train ticket back downtown. He’d gone out to the south end in the hopes of getting a job he’d heard about. He hadn’t planned on not getting the job and only got one-way transit fare from the job office at the shelter.
When he got to his destination, the job was already filled and he had no way back downtown. He was stuck.
It would have been easier for me to hold someone up at knife-point and demand their money instead of panhandling for it, he told the class. But I don’t want to go back to jail so I begged.
I had never thought of panhandling as a stay out of jail card but for this 32-year-old man, life had always been about taking what he wanted by force. He’d learned the ropes in foster care and then juvenile detention and then, ‘the big house’ once he’d turned 18. The two years he had just spent not in jail represented the longest single stretch of time he hadn’t been incarcerated since he was 12 and started his relationship with the criminal justice system.
To this man, panhandling was the lesser of two evils. Going back to jail or panhandling to get back to the shelter for the night.
Panhandling stripped him of dignity, he told the class. People either didn’t look at him and pretended he was invisible, or those who did look at him saw him as ‘less than’. Some even called him names, mocked him where he stood, holding his ‘worthlessness’ in empty outstretched hands for all the world to see.
So often we look at panhandling through our eyes of judgement, or getting to choose, ‘is it right to give money or not?’. Seldom do we see it from the perspective of the asker. What does the act of panhandling do to the human being standing with outstretched hands hoping for a handout?
Desperation lead that man to panhandle. Not laziness. Not a need to feed his addiction or a desire to live off the system.
He’d never known true freedom. Never known what it was like to come home from school to sit around the kitchen table doing homework, laughing with his siblings and having a loving parent patiently guide him through the intricacies of life and living cooperatively within the world. He’d never been taught it wasn’t right to steal. He’d only been taught it was the only way to get what he wanted/needed. He’d never been shown how to be ‘a man’. He’d only been shown how life is a battlefield, it’s do or die, take or perish.
And there he was at 32 learning how to live outside the justice system, learning how to get by in a world that was foreign to him. People expected him to ‘know’. But he didn’t. He’d never been taught the ropes of life and never been shown how to navigate it in peace.
Last I heard from him, he had moved on from the shelter. He was living life beyond ‘the big house’. He had his own place. A good job. Friends to share the good times, and to lean on in the bad.
“If you’d told me this would be me,” he wrote in an email he’d sent me to let me know how he was doing, “I’d have told you that you were the one on crack.”
To read more on the subject of panhandling, the Homeless Hub recently shared this article: How should I handle being asked for spare change?