He is walking towards me, along the island between the opposite lanes of traffic. He stops several cars in front of me, jumps off the cement onto the roadway, gets close to the window of the driver and starts to gesticulate wildly in the air, occasionally thumping his chest and the cardboard sign he holds against it.
A hand reaches out of the window, gives him something, I assume money.
He moves to the next car. Repeats.
He gesticulated more wildly until eventually throwing his hands up in the air, screaming something at the driver’s window and moving onto the next car in line.
He does this until he is beside my car. He starts to wave wildly. I smile and shake my head, ‘no’. On principle I do not give to panhandlers who walk on the road at stop lights. It is dangerous and it is against the law.
He flings his arms up into the air, angrily shaking his sign in front of him.
I do nothing.
He keeps shaking and yelling. I do not open my window.
I do want to cry. To tell him to stop it. To not abuse drivers in such a way. To not use a busy street as his opportunity to gather coin.
I also want to tell him to stop trying to shame me into giving him money. To make me feel guilty.
But I know that is not his ‘doing’. It is my feeling in response to his doings.
The light turns green, traffic begins to move and I drive on.
He remains on the median waiting for traffic to once again stop.
I think about this man as I drive. How I felt angry, frustrated, sad. How I wanted to cry.
Long ago, when I started working at a homeless shelter, I quit giving to panhandlers. I realized that our city offers many opportunities for people to get food, shelter, support. Giving on the street limits my opportunity to leverage my contributions on ending homelessness by giving to those doing the work.
And on a personal level, I want to feel good about my giving. I want to give because I feel it is the right thing to do. It is helping to end homelessness, not contributing to its presence on traffic islands and street corners.
And there’s the rub. We may end homelessness but we will not end people panhandling simply by ending homelessness.
Mental health issues, addictions aside, people panhandle like that man yesterday because it works. Out of the 10 cars he will probably approach every 3-5 minutes, if he gets just one person to give him $2, he will raise about $20 – $40 in an hour. Multiply that by three or four hours a day, and he will have garnered a good return on his investment.
Challenge is, it’s dangerous. It does not support the bigger picture. And it’s against the law. Which means, when we give to someone who is breaking the law because of the location of their panhandling, we are contributing to law-breaking and albeit one could argue it is a small way, we are tearing apart the underpinnings of a just society.
I do not know the story of the man who was panhandling yesterday. Many of the panhandlers I know who do use traffic lights as their location of choice, are housed. They use panhandling in such a way to supplement their income and because it’s a habit.
I almost cried yesterday. Not because I didn’t give, but rather, because the man asking was so emotive in his asking, I questioned whether or not I was a ‘good person’ by not giving.
I know I am but in that moment in time, I almost felt coerced into colluding with someone’s belief that my giving would make all the difference in the world to them, or at least make them go away. I know it won’t.