Why People React Differently to Panhandlers (Hard Times USA)

“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.)

This observation reflected what Paul Boden, who was once homeless for several years, and is now the organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, once said: “I think the poorer and darker-skinned and dirtier a person is, the bigger that private space bubble that Americans love to walk around with gets.”

Others had different reasons for giving. One man said he gives to homeless people who ask for money because of his faith, which coincides with research that found religion motivates people to give.

Throughout my time observing, however, most people who gave said that they sometimes help out others “just because.”

“I just had some extra change today,” one woman said with a shrug.

Similarly, most people who didn’t give or acknowledge a person asking for help said they do give “sometimes.”

Since someone asking a person for help is such an emotional encounter, it is difficult to believe there aren’t more complex factors at play. David P. Levine, associate dean at Denver University and a psychoanalytic scholar, said he doesn’t think people just give people money because they are asked for it.

“If people say [that], they just don’t want to think about what their motivations are very much.”

And perhaps for good reason, as trying to uncover one’s motivations can lead to unwelcome discomfort. One woman, who walked past a panhandler, said with a disappointed expression, “There are just so many people asking for money in the city, I guess sometimes I think it’s easier to ignore some.”

And most do. I stood by as a steady flow of people holding cell phones, iPods or shopping bags poured past panhandlers. One person commented, “These ones down here, they are professional panhandlers. They’ve been here for years now. I used to work here in the mall, and every day I’d see them. They must make a lot of money doing it, I think.”

But from my observation, that was hardly the case. About one person every half-hour dropped a dollar in a panhandler’s cup. Most just swarmed past. And a good portion of people actually claimed they didn’t even see the panhandlers.

Some said they didn’t give because they didn’t approve of the way they believed their money would be used. One man said he used to live in the Tenderloin, a San Francisco neighborhood with a large homeless population, and is therefore familiar with the panhandlers and their lifestyles.

“I mean they primarily use the money for drugs and alcohol, unfortunately,” he said. “So I tend not to give to them. In other cities I do, but not in this one. Mostly because I lived in the Tenderloin for a while.”

Others admitted that they were sometimes fearful of panhandlers.

“Sometimes I give. And to be honest, sometimes I get scared,” one young man said. “I’m new to the city, so I guess it all depends on how I’m feeling.”

Among the overwhelming majority of people who walked past panhandlers and the rare few who gave, was a small handful of those who didn’t give, but acknowledged the panhandler in some form.

One young man, who said, “Sorry, I can’t,” to a panhandler, told me, “I usually react kindly. I never ignore. I don’t think it’s wrong to not give your money if you don’t have it — I’m just out of college. But I do think it’s wrong to ignore someone.”

A fair portion of people who acknowledged the panhandlers, but didn’t give money, shared this outlook.

“If I could afford to always give, and to give generously, I would. But I can't. And having to shuffle through the money in my wallet that I need to find a dollar bill I can spare sometimes makes me feel more ashamed than not giving at all,” one woman said. “So usually I just say ‘sorry’ and keep walking. But I’m not going to make another human being feel invisible.”


“At first, [being constantly ignored] wears on you,” said Bob’s friend, Christina, who was homeless and panhandled in the past. “But then you get so used to it, and it’s just whatever.”

Christina, her husband, Shane, and their newborn daughter were staying in a hotel, waiting for their affordable housing paperwork to go through. San Francisco has 40,000 households on the waiting list for public housing.

Bob said that before she was homeless, she used to ignore people asking for money on the street.

“I used to be one of those stuck-up people,” she said.

Christina claimed that people who appeared wealthy, especially, lacked understanding and gave her “rude looks.”

Another panhandler I spoke to named Ed, who was also waiting for government assistance to obtain affordable housing, reiterated this feeling.

“Lately, from what I’ve been seeing, it’s my working-class folks that will help me out,” he said. “You get a lot of rich people coming out of concerts and things and they’re like…” — he jerked his nose up toward the sky and walked a few steps.

These experiences corroborate with research that has found that wealthy Americans are not the most generous. But the research also found that those who live in areas, such as in cities, where poverty is visible, tend to be more charitable.

In San Francisco, poverty awareness and the ability to identify panhandlers played a big role in motivating people to give and/or acknowledge those asking for help. Still, many of those who gave as well as those who didn’t, were unable to explain their reasoning behind their actions.

That is why it is necessary to continue the conversation. The more we hear people’s stories and converse with them about how they treat those less fortunate, the more likely we can really start to deal with poverty. After all, the first step to truly address poverty is to examine our own reactions to it.

For Christina’s husband, Shane, it took his own struggle with being homeless to engage with poverty. He said he now makes a point of acknowledging panhandlers.

He said, “Now, I try to always say ‘sorry’ or something like that, and not ignore them.”

Alyssa Figueroa's previous article, "Do You Ignore Homeless People?" was the first in this set of articles exploring how people react to panhandlers.

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