Five Myths About Panhandlers

You'd be surprised how many panhandlers aren't drug addicts.

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon; Creative Commons / Wikimedia Commons

That person with a sign begging on the median off a busy highway ramp holds a sign. "Hungry, Anything Helps."  "Homeless," "Desperate," "Starving." 

You think: Junkie. 

Yes, that is Myth Number One about panhandlers these days. See below.

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1) Panhandlers are all drug addicts or alcoholics or mentally ill

Some people panhandle because they have no money and are desperate. Period. They are trying to scrap enough money for a McDonald's meal for themselves and their four grandchildren, say. They are poor and lack the resources to figure out how to get help. Or they're in the midst of working with the social service system, but are on waiting lists for interviews or somewhere in the byzantine maze of bureaucracy required to navigate in order to secure help for their living situation. They are you and me if we lost everything and had no one to call for help.

2) Panhandlers would rather beg than work

Ah, Panhandling. You keep your own hours, work in the sunshine, pay no taxes. …

In truth, panhandling is no walk in the park. A good many people out on the streets would rather be working, even sweeping streets. But finding a "real job" is not an option at the present time in their lives. They are too busy trying to survive. They have no means to bathe, write a resume, wear a clean suit--or whatever else it would take to get out of their situation. They are busy trying to get enough to eat, a place to go to the bathroom, a safe shelter to secure, sometimes food for their children. 

3) Panhandlers are all homeless

Some panhandlers are homeless. Others are just poor. They are trying to make the rent on the garage they share with three other day laborers. The rent on their Single Room Occupancy Hotel room is due for the week and they don't make enough to pay it. They owe big on utility bills. 

These are not hypothetical examples, by the way, but real ones.

4) Panhandlers are dangerous

People who panhandle will tell you that people sometimes act as thought they're afraid the panhandler will attack them. Usually, panhandlers have more to fear from you then vice versa. If you're behind tons of metal, and they are balanced on a patch of concrete between speeding cars, they risk their lives. If they approach your car when you roll down the window, they are the ones who need to worry whether it's dangerous.   

5) Panhandlers don't notice your expression

Windshields aren't window shades. 

You think the person hoping to catch your eye as you avoid their outstretched hand or as you sit, waiting for an impossibly long red light to change can't see your expression. They can. They have trained themselves well. They see revulsion, judgment, pity and apathy in a nanosecond. So if you don't want them to see it, don't look it.

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.