Panhandling: to give or not to give.

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.

Nothing happens.

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.


14 thoughts on “Panhandling: to give or not to give.”

  1. he might be a good actor, but we know that’s not the truth – because whether or not he is influenced by booze or substances … his mental health isn’t in good order, so what is wrong with this picture we’ve all witnessed and which you have so well described? Is the ‘fault’ in his performance, in our giving in – or not, in our empathy or our disgust?

    I would love it if a panhandler had a cup of pencils and a sign saying ‘pencils, $5 bucks … ‘ but entrepreneurship and creativity and mental illness don’t usually find themselves on the same street corner at the same time. I gave $20 the other day to someone panhandling for change outside a Tim Horton’s. She had trouble hearing me … she needed batteries for her hearing aids, but I doubt she bought any. Did the money help her buy batteries or a ticket to get her anywhere? No. We all survive where we are with what we have – and giving someone a hand, or a twenty, isn’t hurting the world. It likely won’t help. But I did anyway. She didn’t offer to clean my windows, didn’t wave her arms wildly. She was just sitting there, looking cold and sad. Then, she smiled and said thank you. I don’t remember getting such a gracious genuine smile in any store where I’ve spend much more. It may not have made her day, but it made mine. $20 well invested methinks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Louise, I stopped to read this today because I wondered what your take would be, knowing your history working at the DI. My experiences mirror yours. I doubt myself every time I do not give, despite knowing there are better ways to use my money. The urge to help almost overwhelms common sense, but in the end, we make the reasonable choice. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t give when people panhandle in traffic either Louise, because I too think it’s dangerous. There’s one man who is always on Mcleod South when i turn off of 4th Ave from Memorial. I always say no, he gracious about but I’ve thought of calling the police. I don’t have a set stand on giving directly to homeless people who aren’t in traffic. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I buy a person a meal. Sometimes I give them a cigarette. Always when I give, I give from the heart, with good intentions. I don’t always feel guilty when I don’t give and never when I do give. ❤
    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like you, I debated calling police if only because of the danger. This time I chose not to.

      And like you, I too will buy someone a meal — I don’t have cigarettes to give but I will give Timmies cards which I sometime carry for that purpose.

      I love this line — I don’t always feel guilty when I don’t give and never when I do give.❤ — so true! Thanks my friend. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah…Louise. I generally do not give at busy intersections, though on occasion I have. One time a man had a sign that said, “I’m not gonna lie…I’m going to buy beer with this money!” He cleaned up I’m sure for his honesty. My son just told me today that a panhandler approached him at a gas station yesterday and tried to clean his windshield by throwing the nasty water bucket the squeegee sits in all over his car! My son tried to stop him and he went and got the other bucket and threw it on his car.
    I have such mixed feelings about it, but for sure they should never be abusive.
    Hope you are well ♡

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen that sign too Lorrie! It works! 🙂

      Aggressive panhandling affects me the same as aggressive salespeople — all I want to do is get out of there!

      It is something that does raise mixed feelings for me too — Love to you my friend. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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