It seems there’s been more conversation lately about people standing on street corners holding signs about their employment or housing status and hoping for spare change from those passing by. I’ve been often asked what one should do when confronted with a person asking for money.
Personally, I don’t see panhandling as a solution to homelessness, but I know there are those of us who feel they’ve helped a homeless person by opening their car window and offering their spare change. I’ve also been asked, more and more recently, why there are more homeless who are “panhandling.”
Allow me to share my thoughts on this: I see homelessness and panhandling as different issues. They are two sides of the same coin - both are related to economics. But they are different.
It’s fair to say that all individuals and families experiencing homelessness live in poverty. However, not all who live in poverty are homeless, and most will never become homeless. Likewise, not all panhandlers are homeless (despite what the signage may indicate) and the majority of homeless will never panhandle.
I believe aggressive panhandling (e.g., knocking on drivers’ windows, walking in the middle of an intersection at a stoplight, blocking people’s entrance to stores or office buildings) is not acceptable behavior. Likewise, criminalizing someone for their homeless status is also not acceptable. But to constantly equate homelessness to panhandling threatens our ability to have an honest conversation about homelessness and takes attention away from the solution - housing.
Equating homelessness to panhandling furthers the stereotype of people who are homeless as beggars, lazy, or deserving of their situation (i.e., “If they’d just get a job…”).
I’ve had the opportunity, I’d even say honor, to meet so many different individuals and families who were homeless during my time here at Crossroads. Those I’ve met are not very different from you or me – the only difference is that they do not currently have an address to call home.
There are those who have college degrees and those who read at a third grade level. There are those who are healthy and others not so healthy. There are those who drink alcohol and those who do not. Some have family and friends whom they love very much. Others have no one. There are those who want to work and others who do not. There are those who laugh all the time. Others cry. Like I said, they’re very much like you and I and the people we have in our lives.
To maintain the stereotype that they would rather beg for a daily wage instead of work, or live on the street instead of in their own place to call home, strips them of their dignity. It makes it easy for us to look away and say they are in their situation because it’s their choice…or their own fault.
I can not accept that. I don’t support the notion that offering spare change to a person on the street corner will help end their homelessness. I don’t support the notion that they are even homeless. I do know that if we want to end homelessness for those men, women and children experiencing it in Rhode Island, that spare change is not the answer. Housing and supportive services is the answer.