Should You Give To A Panhandler?
Everett Daniels has been panhandling for over 20 years, since he left behind the projects in Jersey City, N.J., at age 16. He started out with a cup on the highway, using the money for food or his "drug choice of the day." Then he discovered where the real money is: Manhattan.
For decades, Daniels would commute into town earlier than most businessmen, stand at the Duane Reade drugstore at West Fourth and Broadway, open the door for folks with a smile, and ask for spare change on their way out. For Daniels, panhandling was a full-time job.
Daniels says he'd make at least $50 in a day; $100 easy after a full eight hours.
Kate Winslet once gave him a $20 bill, he says, and, "Macaulay Culkin loves me."
Rough And Ragged
Daniels' red-rimmed eyes betray what his charisma conceals. He's had a hard 20 years, sleeping at friends' houses, under bridges, or in cardboard boxes in whatever warm spot he could find.
"Somewhere dry, out of the wind, and where people won't kick you in the middle of the night. Where rats won't chew on you," says Chad Weekley, who's in an addiction-recovery program with Daniels at the New York City Rescue Mission, which has been running continuously since 1872.
"That stuff is live and raw. It's not fun," Weekley says. "You have to be pitiful. Some of us aren't rough and ragged, but most of us are."
"And women," he adds, "they get spat on, defiled, raped."
Weekley had a couple jobs, in construction and as a dog groomer. But he says that he lost them because of his drug addiction. He ended up panhandling outside a 7-Eleven in downtown Boston, making $200 a day.
"I'd ask in a way that was so pleasant it was sick." It also helped his cause, he says, that he has pretty eyes.
Daniels and Weekley estimate that around three-quarters of panhandlers have drug problems, and most drink.
"I've been in this business 41 years, and all I know is this -- a high majority of people who are panhandling are supporting their habits," echoes Jan Marshall, the senior ministry specialist at the Portland Rescue Mission.
But in recent years, things have become harder for panhandlers in most U.S. cities. The police visit more, sometimes with a court date. And winter is always the worst, says Daniels.
"November, December, January -- people spend a lot of money," he says. "They're not thinking about other people. They're thinking about themselves."
Handcuffing The Homeless
During the Depression, laws against "vagrants" relaxed, since everyone was so much closer to being one. But in the last few recession-stressed years, the courts have been much harsher to the street corner beggar, right when it is so much harder to get a job, a meal and a bed.
The number of cities that have panhandling prohibitions has increased by 7 percent since 2009, according to a 2011 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and by 13 percent since 2006. Over half of the 234 cities surveyed ban panhandling in public places.
Businesses and local politicians are understandably distressed by panhandlers; they may intimidate tourists and shoppers, and expose how our social fabric frays at the margins. But several courts over the years have found panhandling -- asking a stranger for money, or a sandwich -- to be constitutionally protected free speech.
The Chronically Homeless
Many shelters are understandably distressed by panhandlers; out on the streets, they have a monopoly on the public's image of homelessness, an image of a person who can be irritating, alienating and even violent.
Of America's homeless population of 650,000, the fastest growing segment is actually families -- a 20 percent increase between 2007 and 2010, according to federal data. But women and children tend not to be the ones out on the streets, asking for money. That's usually the chronically homeless, according to Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. These are usually men, who suffer from addiction, mental or emotional problems, or are just really down on their luck.
Only a quarter of panhandlers are sleeping on the streets, according to Donovan, whose advocacy organization has interviewed hundreds of panhandlers over the years. The rest, he says, are "precariously housed."
"It's hard being out there. It's a hard way to make a buck," he says. "And unless you were poor, there's no reason you would go out there and do that."
Would Daniels and Weekley have taken a minimum wage job, if it was offered to them?
"Of course," they both reply.
Should You Give?
A lot of people are understandably distressed by panhandlers; they bother us. They ask us to hand over our money, which we suspect might be spent on drugs, beer or cigarettes.
"But you don't know that," says Daniels. "They could be going out to buy toothpaste or soap."
"Or their daughter a gift," adds Weekley.
"It's not free to be homeless," says Anita Beaty, the director of the Metro Atlantic Task Force for the Homeless. "If you know where to go, you can usually get a meal. But you need to know who to ask to get in that system."
A human being needs more than food and a roof. There are personal hygiene products, medication, blankets, water, transportation, clothes.
And a sleeping bag, or a motel room. There aren't enough shelter beds, after all, for all of the homeless people right now in America. An average of 27 percent of the homeless were turned away from shelters in 2010, according to the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty. When it's below freezing, the New York City Rescue Mission will fill its chapel with mats.
"Good luck with the public restrooms," says Weekley. "They want a quarter."
According to a United Nations report this summer, the inability of many homeless Americans to access public bathroom facilities and clean drinking water violates international human rights standards.
But of course there is always the chance that a panhandler will spend your money on drugs.
Some advocates say that shouldn't matter. "I don't know what my friend's going to do with the scarf I got her for Christmas," says Beaty. "She could give it somebody else. When I give a gift there are no strings attached."
But of course, many Americans don't feel that way. "Soliciting for money on the street is a very intimate act," says Donovan. "It's a relationship between two individuals."
Giving An Alternative
Other advocates recommend giving a McDonald's coupon, a bus ticket, a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, or a card with information about local shelters and soup kitchens.
"We say, don't give money, but give an alternative," says John Ashmen, the president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, the oldest and largest network of shelters and addiction programs in North America.
The tagline of Ashmen's recent book "Invisible Neighbors" is: "If you don't see them, you're not looking."
"People train themselves to look away. And when you look away enough times, you don't see what's really in front of you," he says. "When it's very hot or when it's very cold, you may be bypassing people who are having a heat stroke, or are in the initial stages of hypothermia."
"When it starts to snow, and they're walking around without a coat, call the police, call the local rescue mission," he adds.
"It's about the kind of person you want to be," explains Beaty. "I want to be a responsive person to people in need. Apathy in the face of relievable human misery is radical evil. I try to live by that."
"Seeing someone acknowledge me, smile," says Weekley. "That does it for me."
Daniels only entered the addiction program at the New York City Rescue Mission because the executive director, James VarnHagen, a grandfatherly man with a white beard, who laughs with his whole body, asked him over and over again.
After a bad snowstorm last December, Daniels finally said yes. He's now been at the mission for almost a year. "I'm officially his son," Daniels winks at VarnHagen. "I kept my promise, didn't I, Mr. V?"
It's a good year for the addiction program. Out of the 100 or so men who entered, 18 are set to graduate. In just a couple weeks, a 40-year-old Daniels will be getting his first apartment.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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