We’ve all struggled with the moral question: who can I help and how do I know if I should help? This can be a particularly difficult question to answer when it comes to panhandlers. Most of us feel sympathetic when we see someone sitting on the side of the road and asking for money. The unique signs that panhandlers hold up can be especially affective, as no one wants to ignore an out-of-work or homeless veteran, or mother of three. Yet, we are also faced with the question of whether or not the person is telling the truth or simply making up a story to garner or sympathy.
Unfortunately, many panhandlers are making lots of money and not actually financially suffering. While it is difficult to tell the difference between someone who truly needs help, and someone who is taking advantage of others, there are certain tactics that regular panhandlers employ.
One of the easiest ways that expert panhandlers get our money is by buying into our sympathies and by filling our need to help others. The majority of us are sympathetic to the homeless, and we want to help them when possible. Seeing someone who looks tired, potentially wounded, and in need of a shower rings a bell in our minds that tells us that something isn’t right. Panhandlers who have small children with them also get our attention, because the majority of us feel that no child should be hungry or cold. People who hold up signs that indicate that they are veterans, or who have a clear disability, also get our attention.
Another way that expert handlers succeed is by being very specific about what they need. Most of us wouldn’t hand money to someone with a sign asking for money for alcohol; however, we might be more likely to give money to someone who needs food or is out of work and wants interview clothing. Regardless of what they actually spend the money they get on, expert handlers know that they need to be careful about how they ask for the money, and what they claim they will use it for.
The signs panhandlers use are extremely important, because they send a particular message. Many panhandlers also add “God Bless,” or a similar sentiment to appeal to religious feelings, or even “God Bless America” to attract patriots.
Another way expert panhandlers make money is by choosing the right location. Some areas are busier than others, but an expert handler has to be able to get close enough to cars for the people in them to give their money. Also, while many panhandlers work in the same spot each day, this really only works in a big city. If a panhandler stays in the same place for too long in a smaller city or town, there is a chance that business people going on their daily route will start to suspect dishonesty. Expert handlers know where the best money sources are, and often stay close to busy stores or places that many cars drive by, or people have to walk by.
Expert panhandlers also know to follow city rules. Many areas have specific rules about when panhandlers can operate, where they can ask for money (for example, some areas are often limits, and often panhandlers are not allowed to go into the line of traffic), and even how (including avoid harassing others.) Smart panhandlers follow the rules to avoid run-ins with cops, and many others have learned that different appeals work for different people (asking confidently might get money from one person, while looking down and acting dejected might bait another person.)
It is nearly impossible to tell if someone legitimately needs help or if they are making panhandling their daily job. You have to decide whether you are comfortable giving money regardless of how the person spends it, or if you would rather give money directly to a homeless shelter or other cause. Over the past few years, several states have tried to pass panhandling laws, some of which have been deemed unconstitutional. Recently, a Utah man filed a suit saying that his first amendment rights were being violated. Yet, legal or not, panhandling leaves most of us in a difficult situation: it makes us uncomfortable, and yet, it also makes many of us want to help.
If you happen to drive by the same place for weeks and the same person is there with a new sign with a different plight every few days, then you can probably assume they aren’t being completely honest. However, it’s important to remember that some people really do need help, so we shouldn’t turn our backs on all panhandlers. However, there are other ways you can help. Offer to buy the person a meal instead of giving them money, or contact someone at a shelter to see if there is another way to help.