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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm still skeptical

OK, I have a confession to make. I'm suspicious of panhandlers.

That's not a huge revelation, 'cause I know that by nature we tend to be suspicious of strangers. Add to their stranger status bad clothes, a funky smell, a sullen and/or bizarre attitude, and persistent begging, and you have a deal breaker.

I try to be compassionate, but you may recall past experience has chipped away at that emotion where the homeless are concerned. And I just can't help but think I'm getting punked each time I fork up $.50 cents or a dollar.

This post by my friend Tiggerlane, and last night's episode of South Park made me think of it, as the town was overrun by homeless on a mission for change - no paper money, just change.

It's South Park. So sure, it was goofy and just a little mean. But there was sort of a moral to the story. When I exit the highway each morning in downtown Miami, on the way to the Miami Herald building there is a gauntlet of panhandlers waiting with paper cups, ball caps, tin cans, you name it. And I swear these guys are working in shifts now. I always see the same two guys on Monday mornings. And then there's a different couple of guys the next day. And a different pair in the afternoons. They share the same spot.

I don't know what to tell ya. I'm on the phone trying to set up interviews for an article or explaining to my wife why I'll be getting home two hours later than I originally said. I just don't have a lot of patience for a grown man getting next to my window and grinning and waving his cup at me. It nearly makes me salty.

I understand mental illness plays a huge role in all of this. Drug use too. And a couple of the guys are physically disabled. Otherwise what reasons would a grown apparently healthy man voluntarily stand on the side of the road begging for change?

There's one guy who is only out there on the exit ramp sporadically - sometimes a few days in a row, and sometimes I don't see him for a week or two. I suspect he's getting fed and sheltered in the interim, 'cause his sign looks funny. And like Chris Rock said, if you have enough jollies that you can make a jokey sign asking for money and/or food, you can't be that hungry. Hunger ain't funny. If I was hungry like that I wouldn't be telling jokes - spoken or written. My sign might say "Will die if I don't eat."

I don't know that I'm smart enough to solve the homeless problem. But I know that it bugs me. I won't lie. I hate being confronted by people asking for stuff. But I also hate seeing so many apparently destitute people who need either treatment or a loving kick in the behind to jump start their lives, or a combination of both. I am smart of enough, however, to think of John Bradford when I see these guys.

What to do, what to do?

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21 Comments:

  • I'll give someone a dollar if I'm drunk. I mean, really drunk.

    That's my policy.

    By Blogger Matt, at 2:51 PM  

  • I give to helpless looking bums who aren't begging and look seriously hungry.

    Mostly I'll go buy em a burger and hand it to them.

    The professional panhandlers are a scam for the most part.

    If they can stand on a corner all day in the hot sun, they can push a broom or pick up trash on a construction site.

    By Blogger Hammer, at 3:27 PM  

  • I don't give money. Ever. Mostly because I never carry cash. Any quarters in the bottom of my purse I need for parking meters.

    I don't feel bad about it. I have my causes and I'm a donor. Sometimes, I even volunteer.

    By Blogger mist1, at 3:29 PM  

  • Hammer's right about pros.

    When I was in high school I remember going thru the NYC Port Authority two times almost a year apart and the same girl was there. I guess it's easier than real work.

    If you want to know if a panhandler is actually hungry, offer him McDonald's gift certificates. Can't buy booze with those.

    By Anonymous Rick C, at 3:33 PM  

  • JB,

    Panhandlers are just working a job, man. Their job is to remind you of what you might be doing if you were as sorry as they were and couldn't move back in with your folks. Most hobos, bums, beggars, and ex-hippies are just guys who don't want to work, and, as a result, guys who don't want to have regular money. Since Florida has a nice climate, many bums travel south for the winter just like rich people. They, in a sick way, are like migrant workers who follow the crops of wealthy, guilt ridden pockets.

    I don't give bums the time of day anymore. It's not because I don't believe in charity, I just don't believe I need to support THEIR charity, which is them. I used to pick one bum out and support him with goods--never cash--over a period of time. In exchange, I got the lowdown on the streets--kind of like Shaft. When a bum would ask me for cash, I would offer to buy a meal, cup of coffee, or some item that would help them in their urban camping adventure and demand that they tell me something about themselves. Most turned me down. Fine--somebody else can finance their party.

    The one guy I helped the most, named "Jim", was a Vietnam vet who was crazy as a bedbug and didn't want to numb his brains out with the assortment of pharmaceuticals they force feed you at the VA. He was not homeless--he just chose the streets over shelter conditioned on medication. I could respect that, even if I didn't agree with his decision. I guess I wanted to see how long he could make it -- partly because I wanted to see if our soldiers are equipped with the right survival training and partly because he looked about 100 years old and was harmless. Had he been agressive or resentful, I would have cut him off on the spot. But he seemed genuinely grateful for whatever was provided to him. He died about 3 years ago from complications with pnuemonia (which I paid his buddy "Charlie" $5 to find out). But I didn't feel bad for him because he chose to be a free bum over being a captive patient. Charlie got the tent and sleeping bag I gave to Jim and is probably farting on it as I write this.

    Anyway, for the most part giving to panhandlers is about assuaging our own guilt feelings about our relative prosperity. The amount we give is usually related to the level of guilt we feel a need to purge. Right now the amount I give in exchange for simply asking is zero. If the bums don't like it, they are more than welcome to ask the next would-be donor.

    I've done my good deeds as far as beggars are concerned for the next few years.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 3:37 PM  

  • I never know what I should do either. I have been mobbed in DC once when I pulled some money, and have never given since then.

    I want to help, I really do.

    By Blogger Winter, at 4:16 PM  

  • I understand that sometimes people get in bad situations, and I do want to help them out. But if you have nice clothes on and look like a happy person all around - you aren't in that bad of a situation, if you're in a situation at all. What I hate the most is when they walk up to my car and act like I *owe* it to them. Sometimes I'll be in a parking lot and someone will knock on my window asking for money. When I say I don't have any cash, which is usually true, they get all angry with me as if I'm obligated to help them. I've had people walk up to my car while I was at a red light. The light turns green, but if I go I'll run over their foot! So I just have to sit there ignoring them until they get tired of the game.

    The only times I've ever felt bad about not giving a homeless person money is when they wish me a good day anyway, or say "god bless" anyway. Most of the time, even when they seem to be in a genuinely bad situation, they don't seem grateful for what I can scrounge up. And I'm sorry, but that just puts a bad taste in my mouth.

    By Blogger hyacinths and biscuits, at 4:19 PM  

  • nice to put a name to that quote "grace"

    some of those beggars make a good living

    I'm always skeptical, I will feed them .. no cash.. no way.

    One time a girl begged me for gas money as a gas station - because she was trying to get home.

    I put gas in her car - but wondered if she sold it.

    I guess you have to give and then never look back or you lose your blessing.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 4:48 PM  

  • I'm ambivalent about panhandlers myself. On the one hand I want to be compassionate, and on the other hand I want any money I give to be used effectively.

    So I give to my church's homeless shelter and kitchen. They run the largest one in Sacramento and they do a pretty good job of taking care of people. That way I know where it's going. Seems to work well for our family.

    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 5:14 PM  

  • I used to cough up change whenever I saw a homeless person on the street but not anymore. When I was a teenager (not that long ago, haha) working at a grocery store, one of my co-workers admitted she and her husband used to stand on the streets with a sign and collect money just because they could. According to her, they made a decent amount out there. When asked would she do that again by another co-worker, she laughed and answered yes. Since that day, I have never bothered helping the "supposed" homeless again - they will not be laughing on my dime.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:04 PM  

  • Your story reminds me of an incident that happened to me about 25 years ago. A woman in her 60s approached me downtown and asked if she could "borrow" fifty cents for bus fare. I gave her two quarters and shrugged it off.

    I walked into a shop and the shopkeeper said, "You should know something about that lady if you're gonna give her change. She just uses it for liquor."

    Turns out she was once a successful administrative assistant for a very prominent attorney. But she fell upon hard times, and now she begs for quarters on the street for booze money.

    Over time, this same lady approached me, and each time the story was the same - "borrowing" 50 cents for bus fare. I shrugged her off every time.

    I don't know what this will mean to you or your audience - I just thought I'd share.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 7:01 PM  

  • It's always been said that out here, some of the pan handlers make really good money.

    By Blogger Michael C, at 8:48 PM  

  • i never carry cash. if i see someone who seems to be genuinely in need, i ask if i could buy them some food.

    its amazing how often i get turned down.

    they want mulah. not food.

    By Blogger Yas, at 9:52 PM  

  • I never give money - I try to help them out by giving food, gas, and even dog food for their dogs.

    Also - try to help the shelters out financially. (that's the money to give, I guess).

    It's a hard thing - so many of those on the streets are mentally ill...how can we help them?

    By Anonymous Karmyn R, at 12:35 AM  

  • Here in Bangkok we have the "Beggars Brigade". Each morning a truck goes around to each pedestrian bridge and lets out the beggar assigned to that spot. Cripples, old people, young girls with babies(not their own, BTW), and others with assorted maladies. People drop 1 or 2 baht into their cups all day long. During the day, someone comes around to collect and check on the beggars, mainly to keep them from steaing the money. Although people know this is mafia run, that is tuned out and they give just to make merit. I don't give to them, and neither does my daughter now. Several years ago,on her way to school, she would give 1 or 2 baht to an old lady sitting near the bus stop. One morning when my daughter didn't have any extra change to give her, the old woman scolded my daughter. It upset my daughter, but it taught her a much needed lesson. Sorry for the long post, but this is a sore point with me. I'm with the other poster that said if they are able to stand in the sun all day, then they are able to work.

    By Blogger Gerald, at 4:21 AM  

  • In the UK we have the 'Big Issue' charity. Homeless people can buy a pile of magazines which they then sell & keep the profit for themselves. BI also helps them with information etc to get off the street - thus some are helped back. So we buy the magazine, & offer to buy food/drink for others.

    Beyond that there's the whole thing about why people are on the street in the first place which could usefully be addressed. Cos not all of them are there cos they're out to rip off the generous.

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 6:31 AM  

  • I was friends with a homeless guy when I lived in DC. His life story is really tragic. Smoking drugs with his mother when he was 12. Crack addiction, harrassement by society etc. It's pretty sad stuff.
    But he knew how to eat. That's for sure. He very rarely used his pan handling money for food. Mostly he used it for beer and crack.

    By Blogger captain corky, at 7:29 AM  

  • Must confess to similar feelings, though I often cough up the cash regardless. Either way, I walk away from those situations generally feeling like I've been swindled. In some cases, I even feel like it's a toll I have to pay for safe passage.

    The worst part being I know there are people out there, genuinely hungry, and genuinely in need of help. My hope is that — of the "change" I've handed out — at least one of those people was among them.

    By Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy, at 10:04 AM  

  • Ever since I was in line at the bank & saw a homeless man go up to the window & deposit a grip....I stopped diggin' in my damn purse.

    By Blogger Paula D., at 10:40 AM  

  • Out here it makes me so mad, because not only are there regular homeless people there are these surfer beach bums that just don't want to get a job. And they are healthy and dress better than me. I get pissed especially when I work 2 jobs just to stay afloat.

    By Blogger Erica AP, at 7:14 PM  

  • I have no ideas on this issue. I can't get my adult son out of my basement. I once gave $40 and a ride to the bus station to a lady who gave me a sob story on the street about trying desperately to get to her children in Florida. No James, she did not come your way. She was back begging in the same spot the next day. She cured me of compassion for the sign carrying beggers, so I guess it was a pretty cheap lesson.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 6:15 PM  

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