Inevitably, at any major intersection across the city, a person weaves his or her way among the stopped, temporarily captive vehicles while bearing a tattered cardboard sign reading “Homeless. Please help!” or “Hungry, God bless,” or “Thanks for caring.” Tattered clothes and shoes, and, occasionally, a dog, complete the image of neediness.
According to Etymonline, we call such a person a panhandler based on the “notion of arm stuck out like a panhandle” (ca. 1849). Easier to cast a person as an object than to see a real-life arm of flesh and blood connected to a torso, a neck, a face looking surprisingly like my own. So I’m going to use person-first language and call panhandlers people who are beggars.
In all world religions, giving alms is a virtuous act. But does giving a person who is a beggar a dollar at a traffic light really make a difference to that person?
What all of the research has found is that people who are beggars are poor. They are not con artists. There is no BMW parked around the corner. There is no home or “second job.”
Begging is risky and exhausting. It can also be rewarding in a twisted kind of way: The best thing about “short-term relief,” according to The Atlantic, is that it comes with “no strings attached,” unlike public assistance that is targeted specifically at rent or food. In other words, begging provides discretionary income that, yes, can be spent on drugs and alcohol but also a bus pass, a coffee or a new pair of shoes.
David Spears, author of “Exit Ramp: A Short Case Study of the Profitability of Panhandling,” conducted a research study while in the guise of a panhandler on a highway exit ramp in Oregon City, Ore. His cardboard sign read “Iraq Vet—Anything Helps.” Mr. Spears earned approximately $11.10 per hour of begging over 12 days. He found that one in every 59 people offered him not only money, but also gift cards, water, juice and food. Some even offered him rides or jobs. “A major theme of the study is not just the money one earns while panhandling,” Mr. Spears wrote, “but the surprising amount of generosity our culture still produces.”
Per The Chronicle of Philanthrophy, Americans donated $410 billion to charities in 2017 — in fourth place after Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. Gallup’s Civic Engagement Index looked beyond financial donations to find that in any given month 72 percent of their U.S. sample reported “helping strangers.”
But what if those strangers are drug addicts and alcoholics? A 2016 study of London “beggars” (they’re not called panhandlers there) found that 70-80 percent tested positive for illegal narcotics and were ostensibly spending donations to support their habits. That leaves the 20-30 percent of people who are beggars more likely to spend them on food and shelter. I can’t always tell who is who.
Should begging be outlawed? Some municipalities have tried this. But begging has been interpreted by the courts as a constitutional right protected under the First Amendment, so few of these bans stick. How, then, to regulate begging? Folks at CityLab have proposed that begging be treated as a credentialed job, in other words: connect “willing donors and willing solicitors” by credentialing people who are beggars and giving them licenses and badges issued by the city where they live. Cities like Dallas and Fort Worth have targeted the givers, encouraging us to donate to organizations rather than to individuals. Others, like Albuquerque and Lexington, have created a cash-for-work program to get people who are beggars off the streets.
When approached by a person who is a beggar, I cycle through a predictable series of emotions: pity, fear, rage and guilt. Pity for someone who has to make their money in a such a dangerous location, while I peck away at my keyboard in an air-conditioned, dry and light-filled office. Fear that rolling down my window might get me shot, stabbed or choked. Rage that in one of the richest countries in the world, people are reduced to begging because the military and medical and social safety nets tear. Guilt that I don’t want to support this behavior but do want to support the person doing it.
So until Baltimore comes up with a credentialing or cash-for-work program, I’m going to find a way to donate to a homeless shelter, of which Baltimore has at least 30. And I’m going to give away granola bars to the next person who is a beggar who approaches me at a red light.
Terese Thonus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor and director of the writing program at the University of Baltimore.