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Panhandling: A Little Understanding

Reprinted from the December 1997 issue of Street Sheet, San Francisco's street newspaper (a project of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco)

I decided to write this article after being homeless myself for a year and a half, because I learned a few things you cannot learn without being homeless - or at least very close to homelessness and the lives of the people who live it.

We talk in statistics - a percentage of people get this, a percentage of people lose that. But what most of us do not realize is that to each person, it is 100% of their lives.

Have you ever walked by a person and been a approached for money? What did you do?

Most people ignore them for whatever reason, whether they have nothing to give or they just gave to someone else, or maybe they fear the person who they feel is accosting them. Whatever the reason, the panhandler is still ignored.

Some panhandlers get angry when they get no response. This does not happen just a few times; they are ignored many times every day and many times every hour of every day. And not only are they ignored but sworn at, told angrily to get a job, to get away, told they are lazy bums, that they are trash, and looked at in disgust. These are only a few of the insults, and the milder ones at that.

Yes, the panhandlers are angry at this. But when they ask someone for help and the last person has told them that they are useless trash and spat at them, their anger comes to the surface. They do not ask angrily but get tired of being ignored. So they may yell and give back a little of that which they get every day. I do not condone these actions, but I understand them.

"What else can I do?" you ask.

I can tell you from my own personal experience being panhandled that I was never yelled at. I had heard that it happened and saw it happen to someone who was asked right after I was. I was shocked at how upset the panhandler was and how he took it out on the other guy. The man continued on down the street without looking back. The panhanlder paced a few steps before sitting on an overturned milk crate and laying his head down on his crossed arms.

"You okay?" I asked him.

Startled, he looked up.

"I saw you yell at that guy," I said. "What did he do?"

"Nothin', that's the problem. He did nothin'."

I asked what he meant and heard a story that was to be repeated to me by many people. Each person I asked told me essentially the same thing: they were ignored as if they did not exist.

A pattern began to emerge. First was the loss of work, then housing, going begging to GA (General Assistance, welfare) where they were treated like second class citizens and beggars. Not finding a bed at the shelter, they are hassled on the streets by police. Then finally they get the courage, yes I mean courage, to ask others for a little change.

A person must feel awfully low inside to have to resort to panhandling as a way of getting money for food and a place to sleep, let along clean clothes and phone change. (Bus money to look for work is about as far as GA money goes).

A person gets tired of sleeping on the streets. I know. Men are lucky to get a shelter bed once or twice a month. Women fare a little better with a couple of nights a week, but even that gets tiring. After a while you need to sleep in a real bed, have some privacy, and take a bath alone. But you do not have money for a hotel room. Where do you get the money? Your last resort, panhandling. When you begin to see what a person must go through day after day, month after month, you gain a little understanding.

But you ask what you could do.

The reason why I was not yelled at was that I acknowledged panhandlers. I let them know I knew they existed. It was not much, just a look saying that I cannot help. I would look at them, pat my pocket, and show an empty hand, or I pointed behind me with my thumb indicating I gave what I could to the last one who asked me. Sometimes I have just said "sorry." I have also said "not this time," "I wish I could help," or "I just gave to the last guy." All of which was true; I would never lie.

When I did these small things I said a lot more than my words did. I said to them, "I acknowledge you exist, I do not look down on you, you are no less a human being than I, and I respect you as a person." All that in a gesture or a few words.

A person who is down on their luck needs a little dignity left inside. If you look, you can even see the depression in their eyes. Panhandling is their last resort as it takes the loss of a lot of self respect to do it. And courage to look someone in the face and say, "I need your help."

- Rae Chamberlain


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