Panhandling Pitfalls

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

It was a late, humid Pennsylvania night. I walked down the city street which led to my home. In the distance, I heard the thump-thump of bass beats, resounding loudly from tire-sized speakers. The streetlights, fashioned like historic lanterns, illuminated the sidewalk as I paced home. As I approached my house, a man mirrored my quick steps from the opposite direction. The closer he got, the clearer it became he was walking toward me.

His voice broke the rhythm of the distant bass music. “Hey man. Hold on one second,” he stated strongly.

I nodded my head in his direction, but sidestepped him, keeping my walk in-gear. It was late, my home was just around the corner, and I was in no mood for a streetside conversation. I hoped my head nod and quickened pace would convey my intent. It usually did the trick. But not that night. Not for this guy. I heard him circle and begin following me. His first foray to stop me did not work, but his second stopped me immediately, causing the gravel beneath my shoes to skid as I put on the brakes.

“You ignoring me is exactly what you people do,” he shared. “Don’t walk past me just because I’m black.”

His comments instantly ratcheted up the conversational intensity. I spun around and explained that skin color had nothing to do with my disinterest in a sidewalk soirée. It had everything to do with my fatigue and my longing to be home. Even still, I was on the defensive, knowing I had been less polite than I ought to be.

Ignoring my defense, he launched into his story: He had come to the city to visit his son. He came by bicycle, but it had been confiscated by the police. He had exhausted other transportation options and needed to get home to take care of his other kids. His only option was the last-chance bus which left the station in 30 minutes. The cost of the fare? $16.

Without asking too many questions, I pulled out my wallet and thumbed through my cash till I found a crisp $20 bill. I handed it to him, wished him well, and continued home to finish my journey: Mission accomplished.

(video expounding on these questions from my friends at Urban Entry)

As it turns out, this was the first of many times I would run into this same guy on the street. He always used the same attention-grabbing lines and he relied on the same stories to solicit funding for his train ticket. In subsequent encounters, I let him know that he had already used his story with me, but that did not stop him from finding other passersby who would guiltily foot his fictitious bill. Every time I watched an unsuspecting pedestrian be accosted by this routine, my sheepishness swelled. My response had been wrong in every way. Let me expound on the ways:

  1. I dismissed his humanity: When our paths crossed, I avoided eye contact, did not ask for his name and pretended I didn’t hear him. In his book, Under the Overpass, a memoir of his volitional decision to spend a year living with the homeless on the streets, Mike Yankoski articulated a simple starting point for interacting with panhandlers and homeless people. “Looking people in the eyes can restore the humanity in homeless people.”
  2. I gave cash: “Giving cash to someone in need is the least helpful and most temporary solution, and should only be a last resort,” said Andy Bales, director at Union Rescue Mission, in a recent article in Christianity Today. Handing out cash to someone on the street or out the car window is almost always a bad idea. It undermines the work of local ministries and city programs. It enables recipients to feed destructive habits like drugs and alcohol. And, as Andy articulates, those truly in desperate need are very rarely the folks you see asking for money on the streets.
  3. I made a rash decision: I allowed an emotional story, personal guilt, and my own hastiness to cloud my judgment. Had I talked with him for more than a minute, I would have found the holes in his story. If I hadn’t been in a hurry, I could have shared that I support the local shelter and could have given him directions so that he could have a place to rest his head for the night. Simply taking more time would have defused the tension in the situation.

It’s a common conversation among my friends: How should you respond to the gal asking for money on the street corner? Maybe you can learn from my travails how not to respond and use my failure to equip you to respond with grace, thoughtfulness and clarity.

  • Anonymous
    I was walking through Union Station in D.C. and a man was saying, not to anyone in particular but to passers-by generally, that he had been robbed and needed help buying a bus ticket to get to New York. I stopped and asked him what had happened, and he said that he was about to return home by train after a business trip in D.C. but, when he fell asleep waiting in the station, someone stole his briefcase that had everything in it–including his ticket, I suppose, which felt like an odd detail since he was wearing a winter coat that could easily have held a ticket. At the time I wasn’t carrying cash, so I told him that I could buy him a bus ticket with my credit card. As we walked to the station, he explained his business to me and mentioned that someone had given him enough to make a phone call but, when he called the office, the people there were unwilling to wire him money or buy a new ticket or anything else. This also felt like an odd detail. Anyway, we got to the station and I bought a ticket for the next bus using my credit card. We shook hands and I left the station.

    On another occasion, I was walking to the metro station in Old Town Alexandria when a man approached me with a story about how he had just been released from prison. He was supposed to have been dropped off in one place but instead was dropped off in another, and he needed to check in with some official soon or he was going to be in trouble. Or something like that. I figured he was talking about a parole officer. He said that he went to a police station nearby but they wouldn’t help him. And he said that he needed to take the train and after that get a cab. The story as a whole didn’t make sense to me. But I was just coming back from a Theology on Tap and was feeling generous (instead of thinking generous), so I emptied my wallet. He became very emotional. We walked to the station. His metro card didn’t work so I gave him one. On the platform he inexplicably asked me about baptism. After we traveled to the next station he seemed nervous, probably because he noticed that I intended to make sure that he reached his destination. (He would not have expected this because it was late at night.) He got off the train and said he had to use a restroom. I went to look for one, couldn’t find it, and when I returned, he was gone. I asked a man on the platform if he had seen the man who was with me and, if so, where he had gone; he said that he had not. So I went home.

    This is why I never, ever hand out cash anymore. If the man in the first story tried to get a refund on the ticket, the money would have gone back to my credit card. But the man in the second story could have bought anything with the thirty-or-so dollars I gave him. Anything. I felt so guilty after that. Never again.

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