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Positive Panhandling – Is Information As Valuable As Cash?

Topics: Lifestyle & Culture | 2 CommentsBy admin | August 29, 2010

Most of us can’t afford to simply give away cash all day, but would still like to help people out. I think I may have a clever idea to change these interactions, and would love some feedback.

This kind of shtick is getting tiresome

Before I get to the precious links that I know you really come here for, I’m going to preface things with an interesting experience that I had recently. Early in the morning the other day, I walked out of my house to head to what I knew was going to be a long meeting. I lit a cigarette, and as I rounded the corner was confronted by a woman who asked if I had another. I said “sorry” and kept walking. I live in a town that even in bad economic times has service jobs going wanting, which makes it easy for me to pompously justify to myself my reluctance to give things away to the 5-15 people that ask me for something each day. As I walked on, she muttered something incomprehensible, which I assumed was some Gypsy curse to punish me for being such a selfish bastard. About a half block further along, I remembered how my recently deceased mom ALWAYS gave things to strangers, and thought “Great. That lady was probably Jesus in disguise or something, and now I’m going to hell”. I resolved to try to be just a little bit nicer. Just for that day. So a few hours later, I walked out of the meeting, and headed to a nearby alley to indulge in my shameful nicotine addiction. Guess who was sitting at the entrance to the alley. I was on the phone as I passed her and she asked for a dollar. I ignored her because, well, I was ON THE PHONE dammit, so DON’T BE SO RUDE. When I headed back I wasn’t on the phone, and because she had been SO RUDE while I was on the phone, I ignored her as she asked for “just a few” dollars. I walked about 20 feet further and thought to myself “Damn. I planned to try to be just a little nicer, just for one day.” I walked back and asked her exactly what she needed, and she said “oh please mister, just five dollars would really help out.” I explained that I wasn’t likely to just give her five dollars, but would gladly go with her to the nearby store and buy her a bunch of food or other basics she might need, or even take her to a cafe or something for a bite to eat. To which she replied, almost sobbing, “can’t you please just help out with twenty dollars?” I’m not sure how we got from a cigarette that morning to 20 dollars just now, but I explained that there was no way I was just going to give her a bunch of money. I walked away, actually more angry than anything. I was reminded of this little set of interactions today as I read a fascinating article called Westerners vs. the World: We are the WEIRD ones. It explains how we WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) are in fact quite weird in our perception in many ways. It tells the story of how researchers used something called The Ultimatum Game, in which you are given money and asked to share it with someone else. You can offer that person any amount, and if he accepts the offer, you each get to keep your share. If he rejects your offer, you both walk away empty-handed. The results in various parts of the world were quite telling. Along the same lines, a Toronto Star reporter tried a little experiment recently to see how panhandlers would use free credit cards. The actual results were interesting, but not all that surprising. And frankly raises a small question of the ethics of “charity experiments” to create news content, when this sort of thing occurs naturally and probably gets about as much readership. This kind of experimenting is something that can be taken to incredible extremes, as in the case of doing A-B testing to see if a homeless guy can generate more revenue by refining his sign design. I’m not sure if that’s even a true story, but all of these stories reminded me that I’ve been struggling for a long time with how to deal with the people in my everyday life who ask for money on the streets and how I might do something positive that doesn’t involve simply giving away money. To that end, I already have a project in the works to teach computer skills to the disadvantaged, as I think computer illiteracy is a common obstacle to job-hunting confidence, even for homeless people. But I long for a simpler, practical solution to helping those that are struggling, and I think I’ve hit on a clever idea that may have some sense in it. I’d love input on the idea; I’m not sure if in reality it would be pointless or seem condescending. I explain it a little below.

The idea is that aside from people who have made hustling and panhandling a committed lifestyle choice, there are people who are really just down on their luck and floundering. And in tough times like this, there are plenty of us who are fairly broke ourselves, and can’t afford to pull twenty bucks out of our pockets daily to help these people that are worse off than ourselves. In many communities – especially the one that I live in – there are probably more than enough resources available to help out those in need. Once a person is living with the anxiety of simply eating that day, it becomes hard to think clearly about anything. I know. I’ve been there. I’m fairly confident that very few people who start reluctantly panhandling even know where all these resources are. So I’m going to try my own little “charity experiment’, and print up “dollars” that fit in my wallet, and start passing them out in lieu of cash. They could include all sorts of information, like where to get substance abuse treatment, shelter from physical abuse, temp work; the possibilities are endless. Above is a simple mockup of the idea. What do you think?

Here’s that A-B testing mentioned in the article:

Read Comments

  1. Posted by kristin on 08.29.10 11:36 pm

    this is fascinating to me, too. your story about the panhandling woman is just as compelling to me as the experiment that was done with giving out debit cards. as someone who works with people in economic stress, i don’t think there is an easy answer. one of the difficulties that comes with giving the resource cards out is access to these resources. does the person have transportation and/or a phone? we do have an okay bus system in this area, but full fare one way is a buck fifty. there are “minute phones” that are available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford one, but one intake with an agency could eat up monthly minutes.

    the idea of re-marketing one’s panhandling strategy is done, i imagine, more often by the panhandlers than we think. i don’t think offering sanitizer is the way to go. i think the idea that you started with – giving to others has it’s own reward – is enough (at least for me).

    i do think that the chronically poor do need assistance in learning how to get jobs – any jobs. there are programs in the area that do help with getting a resume together to send online, but what i’m seeing is needed is someone to help with polishing resumes, cover letters, and helping the person become employable (this is broad, but it covers things like dress, punctuality, etiquette, follow-through).

    i admire that panhandler’s willingness to show her desperation with you. i just wonder where the desperation springs from.

  2. Posted by admin on 08.30.10 3:05 pm

    I’m glad you mentioned the transportation issue Kristin. It’s amazing that Ann Arbor’s transit system is so useless to those who need it most, especially given the amount of funds they have at their disposal.

    I’m gonna try my crazy idea; I’ve gotten some interesting emails on the topic.

    And regarding the woman I was describing? I have a strong hunch it was heroin. I’ve experienced the results of THAT enough for one life, and she had most of the basic traits of a junky…