Thursday, April 26, 2012

Five Reasons to Give Money to Panhandlers

courtesy of
 Every few years this trope comes around again: We need to discourage “aggressive panhandlers.” Last week, the newspapers were reporting that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was trying to resuscitate a long-cherished plan to run billboards promoting the idea that giving poor people cash hurts more than it helps.

Where have I heard that line before recently? Someone whose name begins with M and ends with Y and isn’t a mouse? The guy who thinks his wife’s choice to stay home with her children is beautiful but a poor woman with two kids needs to feel “the dignity of work”?

Fortunately, Lee’s plan was given the kibosh by newly appointed HOPE director (he made them change his title from Homeless Czar – good move) Bevan Dufty. Thank heavens and Mr. Dufty, the gay former supervisor who I have to say seems to have found his calling in getting business leaders to cough up some actual services for the poor they don’t want fundraising on their doorsteps. But I’m sure it will not be that long before this pernicious “Care Not Cash” (that was the slogan and program introduced by the last mayor, now Lt. Governor, Gavin Newsom) rears its ugly head again.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for long-term services (which we are very short on) and short-term waystations for homeless people who want them. But I’m also a big believer in giving money on the street. Here are a few reasons why:

1. These people work hard for their money.

Anyone who thinks panhandlers just don’t want to work must be drunk. The men who panhandle outside my job are generally there long before I get there in the morning and are still there when I leave at night. They are out there through rain, cold and heat (okay, we don’t get that much of that last). I doubt they take an hour for lunch and they don’t have a cappuccino machine (the newest addition in my office) or health insurance. They have to be incredibly thick-skinned – trust me, I’ve done a lot of leafleting and it’s hard to take that much rejection. And we expect them to be friendly, funny and courteous.

2. One size never fits all

Food banks are great. I give to them. But food banks mostly give out food that has to be cooked, or at least heated, or at least in order to taste very good. Someone who lives out of a shopping cart or in a hotel room where even a hot plate is not allowed can’t do that much with a cauliflower or a box of Hamburger Helper.

Soup kitchens are also great. Friends of mine run them. I used to volunteer at one. But soup kitchens are only open at certain times. What if someone doesn’t want to eat at that time? Unless you happen to be staying right by them, you’re going to spend $4 on the bus to go and come. If you had $4, you could eat at Taco Bell and have a little left for a cup of coffee at 7-11.

3. Everybody wants freedom

I like to be able to decide whether to eat Mexican or pizza. Why should someone have to eat whatever we decide they get when we decide they can get it in the quantity we decide they deserve or we can afford, just because they are poor? Maybe someone is going to spend the money I give them on cigarettes or rotgut wine. Maybe they’re going to spend it on drugs or candy. Why is that my business? People do not become drug addicts or alcoholics because someone gives them $2 and they do not get clean or sober because someone doesn’t. If they need a fix and can’t buy it, they’re more likely to steal for it, or get beaten up over it, or sell their body for it.

And here’s another thought: Maybe they’re going to buy tampons or diapers. Maybe my dollar or two is the last bit they need to get a room for the night. Maybe they are going to buy the lottery ticket that’s going to win them the million dollars and make them rich. (Okay, maybe not.)

There’s just such a thing as discretionary income. I want it. I have it. I think everyone should have it. One of the things I choose to do with my discretionary income is give it to others who want it. Not all the time, of course. When I want to.

4. We all have poverty.*

Last week I went to an excellent talk by a Bolivian indigenous woman. She was explaining the difference between “creative feminism” and “communitarian feminism” (apparently the communitarian feminists split off from the creative feminists I cannot tell you how jealous that makes me). Communitarian feminists, she said, don’t spend their energy trying to get men to stop being sexist. That doesn’t mean they accept sexism. It means they diagnose it as a problem of the “whole body.” She gave this example: If your left hand drops a glass, the right hand doesn’t yell at it or and the head doesn’t call the police. We understand that the whole body made a mistake. I found this simple analogy incredibly profound. Poor people don’t have poverty. We all do. If I make someone’s life a tiny bit better with my few dollars, I make my own life that much better.

* Some of you will remember “We are all living with AIDS”.

5. It’s the least I can do.

I can’t fix homelessness. I can’t fix the economy. I can’t give someone a job or get them one. I can’t get them a house or even an apartment. I can’t get them social services. I can’t get them love (hell, I can't even get it for myself). I can’t get them the Change We Need. But I can give them enough change for a Pepsi or a hot dog.


  1. Uhhh, Kate, no

    1. Cigarettes
    2. Alcohol
    3. Drugs
    4. Junk food
    5. Give the money instead to select NGOs that provide healthy, safe options for the homeless, not to corporations like Pepsi, tobacco companies and processed meat manufacturers who promote and profit from the ill-health of the poor, ignorant and uneducated segments of society.

  2. Kate, informative and provocative, as always.

    I remember when Jon Carroll came up with a holiday-season campaign in his Chronicle column, a takeoff on United Way, called "The Untied Way." Just give cash to people on the street instead of to a bureaucracy.

    Long ago when I was still desperately naive, I designated a small monthly amount to be deducted from my pay for United Way, to be earmarked for a particular very small Hospice charity with which I was volunteering. Three years later, I was talking with the director of the hospice and mentioned that I was glad United Way allowed this earmarking. He told me this was the first he had heard about my designated donation--he had never received a nickel of it. When I followed up with United Way, I learned that because my contribution was only $40 per month, it never reached "critical mass"--so my contribution of over $1300 had simply dribbled into United Way's administrative fund. Grrrr!

    Homeless Czar! Who the hell came up with that one? Glad to learn Dufty changed it.