When I saw a man panhandling on the Venice Boardwalk the other day, I was prepared to pull out a dollar until I read his disturbing sign: “I’m homeless. Need money for weed. Hey, at least I’m honest.” Does that mean most homeless people aren’t honest? His sign also made me wonder: What’s the right thing to do with my spare change? To give or not to give? — I am a teen in search of a panhandler policy.
Most of us want to help. Many of us aren’t sure what to do when seemingly needy street people confront us for money, especially when we don’t know how they’ll use it. According to an article in the Atlantic, “giving money to the poor is an economic crisis of the heart, a tug-of-war between the instinct to alleviate suffering and the knowledge that a donation might encourage, rather than relieve, the anguish of the poor.”
The anguish is everywhere. In the U.S. there are roughly 3.5 million people on the streets. Many are panhandlers. In a study conducted by the Canadian Medical Association 54% of panhandlers use alcohol either everyday, or more than once a week. John Stackhouse, a journalist who worked undercover living on the streets, found that beggars typically spend “almost all their begging money on their addictions.” With one in five people giving to panhandlers, are we contributing to a vicious cycle? Many organizations, including homeless charity Thames Reach, say yes: According to studies, 58% to 80% of those who beg use their money to support their drug habits.
More than anything, homeless people need direction. A 1999 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 80% of the homeless need help finding a job and housing — two things spare coins can’t buy. That’s why the Portland Business Alliance created Real Change, not Spare Change. To avoid “perpetuating” the circumstances of homelessness, the initiative urges people to drop their pocket change in designated meters that support local homeless agencies instead of giving directly to the homeless themselves.
In a fascinating experiment, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tried to transform the circumstances of homelessness by asking 15 people on the streets “what they needed to change their lives.” The answers included a prepaid cell phone, a pair of sneakers, and a “camper van.” The foundation then provided 3,000 pounds a year and someone to help them with their budget. After the “intervention,” most all of them were off the streets and functioning independently, getting treatment for addiction, signing up for welfare and keeping up with their bills.
In terms of forming a panhandler policy to live by, channeling spare funds into local agencies is probably the best way to go for the long-term. In the short-term, though, isn’t there something to be said for no strings attached, instant gratification giving? After all, there are exceptions, like David in the UK, who, after being homeless for three years, panhandled his way off the streets.
And then there’s this story: As my mother was feeding her parking meter one day, a street person asked her for money. She ignored him and went to lunch. When she later realized that her meter had expired, she rushed back to her car. Instead of a ticket on her windshield, she found the panhandler she had rebuffed smiling at her. “I didn’t want you to get a ticket, so I fed the meter for you,” he said.
It makes me realize that spare change might not solve the problem of homelessness, but if he can spare a quarter, maybe sometimes I can too.