The Politics of Panhandling: Part 1

Just last week I was reading about how the city of Seattle was thinking about enacting a ban against aggressive panhandling. They wouldn’t be the first to do so, as many cities are either considering or already have such a ban on the books. I am personally torn when it comes to the subject of panhandling. On one hand there are those who sit or stand silently with a cup in front of them, heads bowed, maybe with a small sign. These are the typically inoffensive people we pass on the street or on the subway, who stand in the street and come up to our cars and ask for change. We tend to ignore them, passing them by as if they were furniture or stop signs.

Then there are the people who I have a really hard time with—the scam artists. Homeless and non-homeless alike, these individuals sometimes appear openly intoxicated or come up with incredible sob stories: “My kids need to be fed, need just $1 to catch the train”, etc. etc. These scammers ruin it for those who are truly in need of help.

But it’s hard to tell who’s real and who’s not, and no boys and girls I don’t have a secret formula to figure out who is who. So I’m not going to explain what or who to look for or to whom you should give your money. For many people panhandling is their only means of survival. Not everyone can sell papers or play music. Yet for others it’s just a big scam.

As far as aggressive panhandling is concerned, the question remains of how to truly address the problem. If you make the rules too strict then those that truly need help will be run off or arrested. Make them too soft and they won’t work. Maybe the best way to address it is by providing real jobs, with real living wages, so that people wouldn’t have legitimate reasons to panhandle. Maybe we should take a realistic look at the distribution of wealth in this country.

Most people who have to resort to panhandling do so because every month they have to make decisions about whether they should eat or buy medicine. It’s true that there are social programs that address these types of issues, but most are understaffed or underfunded so many fall through the cracks. You address this problem of resources and you may be able to put a dent in the panhandling problem…sort of.

But then there is still the matter of the scam artists, and honestly there may not be a proper or easy way to address it. As far as this paper goes, all of our vendors wear badges (green this year). Anyone selling Spare Change without a badge is not a vendor. We try to make it simple to identify who is legit, but it’s not always to easy to do so on the street, so just be careful.
In part two of this series, we will look at the unique ways that some cities have come up with to address panhandling. Stay tuned and be safe until then.

James Shearer, Spare Change News co-founder, was once a homeless vendor. He currently serves as the Board President.






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