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Why People React Differently to Panhandlers (Hard Times USA)

Passersby explain why they respond the way they do to people asking for help.
 
 
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“I live my life under the Golden Rule,” Bob told me, after I asked her why she gave a dollar to a man holding a “Please Help” sign. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Bob said she was living in a homeless shelter with her newborn son. She knew all about panhandling and how people “just don’t understand.” And so, she said, “I give when I can.”

***

Bob was the first person I spoke to about her response to being asked for help. I observed and talked to numerous people in San Francisco near City Hall (where a large number of homeless people populate) and Powell St. Bart Station (where panhandlers work the city’s shopping center).

It is approximated that there are at least 10,000 homeless people living in San Francisco, and about one million in the United States, though these figures are most likely underestimated. Good portions of them resort to panhandling as a means of survival. And just as there are a variety of reasons people end up on the street, there are a variety of ways passersby react to their requests for money. Some people give to panhandlers. Some ignore them. And while some don’t give, they acknowledge them with a smile or a "sorry.”

Why do people react the way they do to panhandlers? While there are theories and studies concerning people’s perception of those in poverty, perhaps the best way to find out how people perceive those asking for help is to ask them.

Like Bob, some people said they gave because they could identify with the panhandlers. They felt inclined to help because they were fortunate to be in a better financial position.

One woman said she gave because she knows anyone could fall into homelessness. “I feel sorry for them because I have kids, and someday they may be hungry and nobody gives to them,” she said.

The woman said she has a lot of bills to pay, but gives anyway, “because maybe they are hungry or want a coffee. And I can buy one, and they can’t.”

A young man who gave also shared the sentiment that if you have more than others, you should give. “I never lie. If they ask me, ‘Hey do you have a few bucks to spare?’ and I do, I give,” he said. “I think it’s weird to lie to someone, especially if you have it and you’re more well-off than they are.”

For some who gave, other social factors played more of a role than poverty itself.

“I guess it depends on how much I identify with the person,” said one young woman who gave money to an elderly woman. “If I see a woman, or a person with an animal, I could more easily imagine myself in their position and feel a personal connection to what they may be going through. If I can't feel a connection, it makes it easier to walk by and not be motivated to act.”

Another woman said she typically doesn’t give, but felt particularly sympathetic to the same elderly woman.

“She looked elderly and desperate. You know, I usually don’t give if they look young and able-bodied, because I work hard for my money,” she said, therefore granting this woman understanding of her misfortune — a misfortune, she believes, that can’t happen to others who “work hard.”

In fact, throughout my hours of observing people’s reactions to both the elderly white woman and her black male friend panhandling outside of the subway station, not a single person gave money to the black man. (At the end of their panhandling session, the elderly woman gave him half of what she earned.)

 
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