-- Written by Sue Loellbach
I really don’t like being asked for money. I tend to hang up on phone solicitors and throw away mail asking for donations, and even though I work at Connections for the Homeless, I sometimes cross the street to avoid panhandlers. When I encounter them, while I feel compassion for their need, I also feel irritation, frustration, sometimes fear, and shame. It’s extremely unpleasant.
One would think that, since I work at Connections for the Homeless, I would feel differently. I know that not all panhandlers are homeless and that not all people experiencing homelessness are panhandlers. I know that most panhandlers use the money they are given for food and basic necessities. I know that panhandling is a constitutional right, and also that it is an ancient survival strategy, particularly in urban communities.
So why does panhandling bother me so much? I've tried to analyze my feelings about panhandling, and the thought process went something like this:
This last point is where the discomfort lies. I have a neat and tidy way of managing my money. Panhandlers both disrupt that order and call out the privilege that allows me to have that order. It is my choice to do what I want with my money, and when I don’t give to someone who asks me for money, it feels wrong, even when I think it’s the right decision, even if the person was rude to me, and even if I didn’t have any cash on me and didn’t have the time or inclination to go to an ATM.
There are many ways to justify not giving money to someone who asks you for it—I can’t give to everyone, it doesn’t really help with their root problems, they don’t deserve it, I worked hard for my money, etc. I have used some of these in my own head. However, none of them gets rid of the fact that I could help them if I wanted to, and I don’t want to, even though I feel that I should. In fact, panhandlers put this discrepancy right in my face.
I did an informal survey of Connections’ staff to see if they feel the way that I do and how they deal with panhandlers. The bulk of respondents were ambivalent, like I am—they feel compassion, irritation, and frustration—much like me. Most of them give when they have cash on them—a few make a policy of not giving, and others set aside cash each month specifically to give. Almost all expressed anger, not at the panhandlers, but at our society which does not provide enough supports to people in need and makes panhandling necessary for some. All of them felt that panhandlers should be treated with dignity, but not all felt comfortable engaging with them.
In thinking about how to deal with my own discomfort and about how to advise the many people that ask Connections how to deal with panhandlers, I felt that acknowledging the tension we all experience when asked for money is important. However, it doesn’t help with what to do.
In this, I think it’s also important to consider why panhandling is such a hot button issue right now. While it is never going to go away, panhandling is cyclical—it follows the patterns of our economy. Right now, panhandling is on the rise, across the entire country—housing prices, poverty, and homelessness are all increasing. That means that panhandling will not decrease until the economy changes. And, importantly, Evanston is not exempt from this problem.
So what do we do about it, since we probably have no choice but to co-exist with it? Here are a few suggestions for what we need to do systemically (with individual actions you can take below):
As an individual, you also have a variety of strategies you can use to make yourself more comfortable:
If you are interested in reading more about panhandling, I have found the following websites that have good information. And for information on referring people in need to agencies for help, see this page on the website of Connections for the Homeless: