“Too ugly to prostitute. Spare some change.”
August 29, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

How panhandlers use free credit cards-"What would happen if, instead of spare change, you handed a person in need the means to shop for whatever they needed? What would they buy?"
posted by nevercalm (75 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder how the cards would be used if given to persons not "in need." My guess is on the same sort of things as those in need, but likely more toward entertainment goods, or Starbucks.

Street people, they're just like us!
posted by Doug Stewart at 12:00 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Interesting, and humanizing, if still seeming a bit exploitative.

I'm not sure how I feel about this homeless people as guinea pigs trend.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:01 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


For those not from Ontario, the LCBO is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, who operate all the liquor stores in the province.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:03 PM on August 29, 2010 [15 favorites]


Thanks Johnny, for I was too lazy to Google.
posted by nevercalm at 12:04 PM on August 29, 2010


I was surprised that the reporter could monitor the transactions online. Is this a common feature of these prepaid Visa/Mastercard gift cards?
posted by mullacc at 12:04 PM on August 29, 2010


I was surprised that the reporter could monitor the transactions online. Is this a common feature of these prepaid Visa/Mastercard gift cards?

I guess he had to activate them first, and then became the owner/user.
posted by carter at 12:07 PM on August 29, 2010


This is the NY Post article mentioned in the article.
posted by nevercalm at 12:09 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits - massively profitable businesses designed to exploit poverty, and muscle out legitimate financial and food services from poor and urban areas.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:11 PM on August 29, 2010 [38 favorites]


I was surprised that the reporter could monitor the transactions online.

Where does it say he did it online?
posted by dobbs at 12:11 PM on August 29, 2010


Where does it say he did it online?

I don't know that it does, but I'm not sure that there's another way to do it if someone disappeared with the card.

I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits


That's a connection I've been trying to figure out how to express, and you just did it perfectly. Thanks.
posted by nevercalm at 12:16 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits

I mostly get around by walking, and this has a lot of impact on where I choose to live. Since I make a decent living, I have the freedom to live in a part of the city that is close to grocery stores, coffee shops, a pharmacy, and other amenities. I am not sure what I would do if I didn't have that option. Spend a lot more time walking to get the things I need to live, I suppose.

As for the article, it was pretty interesting, and I would like to see this carried out somewhat more systematically and with a larger population. It would be also interesting to know what services are available to provide some of the daily needs, what barriers there are to using them, whether the people know about them, and so on.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:24 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


The title should really be "How these five people used free credit cards." There's no way to know if they're representative. The fact that they knew they were being watched could have changed their behavior, although given that $53.85 was spent on alcohol, maybe not.

As far as fast food - if they're homeless, what else are they going to buy? It's hard to cook without a kitchen, and sit-down restaurants are expensive.
posted by desjardins at 12:26 PM on August 29, 2010 [13 favorites]


Where does it say he did it online?

It doesn't. I assumed it was online. I don't see much a distinction though--access to transactions online implies the same level of account access that you get from paper statements.

So do banks send statements to the person who funded the gift card even though the presumption is that someone else is going to be using the card?

I know with re-loadable cards you can typically access online transactions (and presumably receive paper statements), but those cards require identification, including a social security number. This is in the US, though, so maybe it's different in Canada? In the US, I believe it is required by "Know Your Customer" & AML rules.
posted by mullacc at 12:33 PM on August 29, 2010


I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits - massively profitable businesses designed to exploit poverty, and muscle out legitimate financial and food services from poor and urban areas.

While I hate fast food generally, I don't think this is really accurate. First of all, these stores aren't massively profitable. Second, they tend to exist all over, not just in poor and urban areas. While you don't have supermarkets within walking distance of a lot of poor areas, it's not because the 7-11s are keeping them out. And if the supermarkets magically appeared in those areas without driving out the poor people in them, the convenience stores and fast food places wouldn't be going anywhere.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:36 PM on August 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


The fact that they knew they were being watched could have changed their behavior, although given that $53.85 was spent on alcohol, maybe not.

In Ontario, this is not a lot of money to spend on alcohol. I visited Los Angeles in April and bought the largest bottle of gin I've ever seen in my life for $20. In Toronto, the same brand (Bombay Sapphire), less than half the size is almost $30. The 1750ML bottle, which I've never even seen for sale in Toronto, is almost $56, according to the LCBO web site.
posted by dobbs at 12:38 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I was surprised that the reporter could monitor the transactions online. Is this a common feature of these prepaid Visa/Mastercard gift cards?


I've used a couple prepaid gift cards before. You go online and enter in the card number and a pin number that is found on the back of the card; it spits out the remaining balance and lists any charges you have made...
posted by giantfist at 12:55 PM on August 29, 2010


While you don't have supermarkets within walking distance of a lot of poor areas, it's not because the 7-11s are keeping them out.

No, they're keeping out the non-super-markets using vendor connections, political favors, and marketing muscle to hog high-margin items like tobacco, boozer and lottery tickets, and abrogating their responsibility to the community by refusing to carry actual groceries at an honest price, to the point where it makes more financial sense to eat at McDonalds for every meal.

Zoning boards should stomp on this by requiring a certain amount of square footage for non-specialty food retailers - where a small or midsize grocer could thrive, but a beer-and-lotto hole in the wall that sells $5 cans of Chef Boy-R-Dee and stale loaves of Wonderbread couldn't.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:01 PM on August 29, 2010 [11 favorites]


remember that post recently that explained pan-handlers are organized and take in on a good day over $200, there was a web site prepareing new
people on what to dress and say when starting to pan handle.
posted by tustinrick at 1:06 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It would be wild to conduct this experiment in SF.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 1:20 PM on August 29, 2010


remember that post recently that explained pan-handlers are organized and take in on a good day over $200, there was a web site prepareing new
people on what to dress and say when starting to pan handle.


No, why don't you enlighten us.
posted by klanawa at 1:21 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits - massively profitable businesses designed to exploit poverty, and muscle out legitimate financial and food services from poor and urban areas.

Except the holes that they fill were already there. They're not designed to exploit poor people, they're simply exploiting a situation thats inevitable when you have a society determined to maintain a permanent underclass.
posted by billyfleetwood at 1:25 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits - massively profitable businesses designed to exploit poverty, and muscle out legitimate financial and food services from poor and urban areas.

Payday loans are a bit of an interesting case. An op-ed in the WSJ a few months ago (can't find the link) noted that prior to the rise of the payday loan industry, the same services were controlled by organized crime rings. At the very least, payday loan shops operate in daylight and under tight regulatory control. Their rates are indeed usurious, but they also won't murder you if you can't pay. Don't most of us make similar notions about the drug trade?

On the other hand, convenience stores and many urban grocers are seriously awful. Here in DC, we've got Murry's, whose existence I cannot even begin to rationalize -- the quality of their food is shit, and is considerably more expensive than any of the national chains operating in the area (most of which are easily accessible by public transportation).
posted by schmod at 1:28 PM on August 29, 2010


they're keeping out the non-super-markets using vendor connections, political favors, and marketing muscle to hog high-margin items like tobacco, boozer and lottery tickets, and abrogating their responsibility to the community by refusing to carry actual groceries at an honest price, to the point where it makes more financial sense to eat at McDonalds for every meal.

No, I don't think that's accurate at all. They're there because they're everywhere, and they're not making the margins you seem to think they are. They don't carry actual groceries because those don't do well - you need volume to make that work. It's an unfortunate set of circumstances, but you don't need to posit a conspiracy to explain it.
posted by me & my monkey at 1:51 PM on August 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Interesting article, but having read it I'm still not sure what the project attempted to prove and whether or not it succeeded. That the homeless subjects might be suspicious of the cards was not difficult to foresee. If I'd been a recipient, I'd fear being accused of having stolen the card--and then who would the police believe? Me, homeless; or the presumably middle-class journalist? I wouldn't be surprised if this were the reason that one of the five cards was unused, and that waste, in aid of this particular project, frankly bothered me. Though the money the unused card represented is very trivial to most of us, it could have meant a lot to a needy person.
posted by applemeat at 1:58 PM on August 29, 2010


Payday loans are a bit of an interesting case. An op-ed in the WSJ a few months ago [..] noted that prior to the rise of the payday loan industry, the same services were controlled by organized crime rings. At the very least, payday loan shops operate in daylight and under tight regulatory control.

I see.
posted by applemeat at 1:59 PM on August 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


remember that post recently that explained pan-handlers are organized and take in on a good day over $200, there was a web site prepareing new
people on what to dress and say when starting to pan handle.


I must have missed it. I looked at all the posts tagged 'panhandling,' in both AskMe and the main site, and didn't find anything like that at all. If you don't mind, could you please post a link?
posted by box at 2:11 PM on August 29, 2010


> Here in DC, we've got Murry's, whose existence I cannot even begin to rationalize...

I'd never heard of Murry's, so I clicked on the link thinking "it's some kind of supermarket, how bad can it be?", and...holy cow - Honey BBQ Flavored Wing-its, Porpcorn Chicken, French Toast Sticks, Buffalo Style Wow Wings, Chedda Burgers - it's like a list of shit Homer Simpson ate in that episode where he got fat on purpose to go on disability.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:17 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It would be wild to conduct this experiment in SF.

How so?
posted by incessant at 2:33 PM on August 29, 2010


I think he would have had better results without the, "Come back here and give me the card when you are done," aspect of this. First, homeless people definitely feel territorial toward their "spots" during peak hours and don't want to leave, as mentioned a few times in the article.

And then there's also the whole Big Brother/paranoia issue of having to report back in to someone. Given that the reporter talked to them ahead of time, why did he need to put this conditio on them?
posted by misha at 2:52 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I must have missed the post about panhandling as well. I do know that the summary matches my understanding. I know somebody who panhandled for a while; they claimed they could easily make $50 an hour if in a good location.
posted by Justinian at 2:52 PM on August 29, 2010


remember that post recently that explained pan-handlers are organized and take in on a good day over $200, there was a web site prepareing new
people on what to dress and say when starting to pan handle.


They just say that because theyre boasting out of feeling so ashamed - nobody makes that kind of money. Do you wave wads of dollar bills in the street ? No you don't. Why ? because somebody would take it from you - qed - homeless people are just lying when they say things like that, or it was near christmas etc.

Anyway - with a card like that I think theres too much control left with the giver not to make it demeaning for the recipient, you know, tied aid or whatever.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:55 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read the article in the dead tree edition this morning. It rubbed me the wrong way - it gave various sob stories and demeaning forced justifications for their purchases.

Poverty and housing instability is a systemic issue and articles like this reduce the problem to poor individual choices when the individuals actually have few realistic choices.

And fuck, harping on the LCBO? How someone prioritises their purchases is their freaking business once you hand over money. Is addiction a new concept?
posted by saucysault at 3:03 PM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


They just say that because theyre boasting out of feeling so ashamed - nobody makes that kind of money.

I don't think you are correct.
posted by Justinian at 3:04 PM on August 29, 2010


my dad works with someone who once said this guy watched someone panhandle all day then secretly followed him to his car which was a BMW and then followed him to his house which was in the suburbswhichiswhyhelpingthepoorisstupid
posted by sourwookie at 3:17 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've heard this, too, and I'm sure it has to be an urban legend dreamt up by people who don't give any money to panhandlers, feel guilty, and want to rationalize away their guilt.
posted by misha at 3:22 PM on August 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


I've heard this, too, and I'm sure it has to be an urban legend...

I agree, in part because it's always seemed to me that the type of personalities to wave off the problems of the underclass by citing the notion that panhandlers are "raking in $XXX per day!!" are exactly the kind of people who would take up panhandling tomorrow were that actually true.
posted by applemeat at 3:40 PM on August 29, 2010 [8 favorites]



I don't think you are correct.


Well, you wouldnt, would you ?
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:04 PM on August 29, 2010


I think he would have had better results without the, "Come back here and give me the card when you are done," aspect of this.

Agreed. If the point of this experiment was to find out what happens to the cash you give a homeless person, then he should have handed people the cards, said "It's got $50 [or $75] on it, it's yours, go spend it, and when it's empty throw it away. No strings attached. Have a nice day." People still might have spent the money differently on the suspicion they were being watched, but we would have had a far better chance of gaining some insight than by what this guy did. Did he not see how this condition would likely skew his sample? I don't see the point of it at all. (And I feel sorry for the poor kid who only bought himself lunch.)
posted by Marla Singer at 4:04 PM on August 29, 2010


I hope it's apparent to all I was parroting so much of the unsubstantiated selfish drivel I hear far too much of--which is why I framed it as a friend of a friend of a friend myth. I just felt the /hamburger tag would ruin the flow.
posted by sourwookie at 4:12 PM on August 29, 2010


I think the point of having them return the card was so that the reporter could then ask for more information about the person. How they got into their situation, what that situation is. You know, all the stuff reporters want to know.

I don't get the impression this was meant to be a statistically valid experiment, but more of a human interest story.
posted by wierdo at 4:16 PM on August 29, 2010


I want to know what the waiters do with all my tips.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:17 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


the building I work also has a food bank and one Sunday a guy came in looking for assistance. It was the only time we left the door unlocked. He was very....humble, polite etc. Not having access to the storage locker, ms.clav and i gathered juice, water, crackers- anything. Scoured the office for loose change, a few ones and a one use credit card with 7.56$ on it. he used the card for gas at a station i recommended since most wont do that transaction. (low amount or something)

i wept when i got home. like a mother.

the main idea is do what you can. even when it doest feel like enough.

and the guy now has shelter and assistance i found out a few days back.

on track. give what you can and let those who receive see fit on what to spend it on.
posted by clavdivs at 4:17 PM on August 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


Gah, clicked post too soon...

One thing I think people don't get when they hear that panhandlers make some amount of money more than they think the panhandlers ought to make is that it's expensive to be homeless. Without a kitchen, you can't buy food in bulk and cook for yourself to save money. Even if you could, without a place to refrigerate leftovers, you're stuck making too much food much of the time, basically turning two or three meals into one. Without a place to store your stuff, you're limited to what you can carry, so naturally you're going to go through things like clothes much more quickly since you're using everything you own basically every day. (Not to mention dirty clothes wear out more quickly as the dirt abrades the fibers)

That doesn't even begin to touch on mental health and addiction issues which may suck up even more money.
posted by wierdo at 4:20 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure this article was trying to prove anything about what they spent it on so much as see whether they came back or not, and get some human interest angle out of it. It leads with a story about a homeless man who was handed an actual American Express card, not a pre-paid $50 one. The point of that story was instead of making off with it and maxing it out, he bought a few things he needed and then returned it. In this article, he doesn't state whether he told the recipients it was a one-use pre-paid card or not, but the fact that he asked them to return it suggests he kept that fact to himself.

Of course it's not a properly controlled sample size useful for statistical inference. That would be pretty costly.
posted by cj_ at 4:28 PM on August 29, 2010


I know somebody who panhandled for a while; they claimed they could easily make $50 an hour if in a good location...

I've heard this, too, and I'm sure it has to be an urban legend...

An urban legend at least as far back as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It's the central plot device of "The Man with the Twisted Lip"; a country gentleman who can support his family by commuting daily to the city to beg.
posted by rh at 5:39 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Marla, the guy who bought lunch was given the card afterwards to spend the balance.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:53 PM on August 29, 2010


A while ago the Toronto Sun did an investigation of Margita Bangova, known sometimes as the Shaking Lady, which opened up a lot of discussion about panhandling in Toronto, how much do panhandlers make, and which ones are the con artists.
posted by hala mass at 6:32 PM on August 29, 2010


StickyCarpet : I want to know what the waiters do with all my tips.

I had to laugh so hard and then think a while about this. You are of course so correct. I used to be one of the ". . . ah, they will just buy booze with the money I give them!" crowd.

Since then I have changed my mind about this matter (and joined a Dharma) and when I go shopping at the supermarket and spend around $50-$80 on food it is my pleasure to hand over a dollar to the guy at the street corner. Looking at his face, his teeth and his skin, as well as his hands, I am certain that this guy is not living the high life once he is done pan handling. I smile, hand him the buck and he may or may not praise the lord for me, I smile again and drive on. And I truly do not care if he buys a beer, since I for sure have at least one in my shopping bag as well.

I do have the secret wish to talk one day to one of these folks, to learn at least a bit of the story he/she has to tell. I am sure it would be worthwhile, but I am lacking the courage.
posted by nostrada at 6:39 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy: I'm beginning to consider convenience stores and fast-food joints in the same light as payday loan and check-cashing outfits - massively profitable businesses designed to exploit poverty, and muscle out legitimate financial and food services from poor and urban areas.

I'm curious what you consider legitimate food services. Grocery stores, obviously, but I'm guessing those would compete more with the convenience stores than with fast food. Regular restaurants, from what I've seen, are usually more unhealthy than fast food and while you can get decent food at them if you want to, that's usually true of fast food as well.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:49 PM on August 29, 2010


Fast food restaurants have taken the place of local grocers, simply because it's the only place you can get to on foot or by bus that sells food at a price you can afford. It's not a choice between The Crunchy Granola Organic Eatery and Mickey-D's - it's a choice between dollar burgers and five dollar cans of spaghetti sauce at the corner store, or an honest plate of spaghetti you can make with generic pasta, sauce, fresh peppers and onions, and cheap ground beef.

Think on that a bit - cheap hamburger, the 80% lean stuff, is an unobtainable luxury if you live in the wrong part of the city, not because you can't afford it, but because you can't afford to go get it. The cost of going shopping, in time and money, is too high.

Megamarts are not immune from blame - the deals they set up with their vendors are brutal, and only achieved with high volume resulting from lots of square footage and big parking lots, which isn't available in the inner city. Suppliers won't even bother with smaller operations, especially if it has to be trucked into an area they consider "bad," or they try to soak the smaller operations to make up for the beating the megamart chains put on their margins to the point where smaller operations give up and go back to selling snacks and cigs.

If there were enough corner grocers actually selling food, it would be worth the wholesaler's while - but the corner grocers want to sell beer, ciggies and lottery tickets, as that's where the money is, and the rest of their stock, if they even bother to think of it, is just ruthless opportunism.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:32 PM on August 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Toronto isn't Detroit or Atlanta. Our core is healthy. Except for a couple blocks (Regent Park, which is being redeveloped with mixed income buildings designed by our better architects), there isn't an "inner city". In fact, the more troubled areas are in the older inner suburbs. But nowhere is a burnt out no-go zone.

One guy in this story was on Queen St. W. There is a diverse selection of restaurants in this area. It is close to Chinatown and Kensington Market, where cheap groceries (especially produce) are plentiful. Another was outside St. Lawrence Market, full of butchers and bakers and fishmongers, with a grocery store across the street. That said, there's nothing wrong with a guy given fifty bucks going to McDonald's for a burger (or getting a $21 meal at a sit-down joint). Can't expect someone sitting on the street to suddenly become Chef Economical Homemaker even if he's running his running his line against the shopping carts just outside an IGA.
posted by TimTypeZed at 8:02 PM on August 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I agree that panhandlers are often, and maybe even more often than not, truly needy. But if you don't think there aren't more than a few con artists among them, then think again.
posted by jabberjaw at 8:11 PM on August 29, 2010


remember that post recently that explained pan-handlers are organized and take in on a good day over $200, there was a web site prepareing new
people on what to dress and say when starting to pan handle.
posted by tustinrick at 1:06 PM on August 29


Huh?

Well, gee, lemme see ...

*Googles*

Oh, do you mean this comment in 2008 that linked to a series by John Stackhouse, a reporter who lived on the streets of Toronto for a week in 1999 and reported that panhandlers make $200 a day?

If that's not what you mean (and I'm thinking it's probably not), do you mind showing us the link? You would be more likely than any of us to be able to find the link and identify it as the report that you saw.
posted by John Cohen at 8:45 PM on August 29, 2010


Wow - I passed Jason, with the "Smile if you masturbate. Spare change if you like it" sign earlier today. I was in Toronto for Fan Expo. I have to say, it's kind of surreal to read about him later in the day, especially since I only caught the first half of his sign (we were in a hurry) and was slightly bothered that I wouldn't know what the rest of it said.
posted by Stove at 9:34 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


My brother panhandled in Toronto. He made $10 a day.
posted by jb at 10:07 PM on August 29, 2010


Marla, the guy who bought lunch was given the card afterwards to spend the balance.

Oops, I guess I read too fast, because I missed that. Good, I'm glad he got the rest of the $50.

I agree that panhandlers are often, and maybe even more often than not, truly needy. But if you don't think there aren't more than a few con artists among them, then think again.

Sure, but they're con artists who probably grew up in foster homes, have been shat on their whole lives, and will die much younger and more miserably than the vast majority of us, unlike the con artists who wrecked our economy and retired comfortably with fat bonuses from the public coffer. If just half of the hatred and vilification heaped on homeless people were directed toward the exploitative uber-rich (and I'm not accusing you personally of hating or vilifying anyone), this world could become a better place.
posted by Marla Singer at 10:08 PM on August 29, 2010 [11 favorites]


I reckon the fella who didn't use the card didn't know how to use the card. Or was too scared to try, or both.

I used to semi hang out with a functionally illiterate lad, but I didn't know it at the time. Sure, I knew he was as dumb as a box of hammers straight away, but it was a moment of epiphany when I realised "this fucker can't read."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:52 PM on August 29, 2010


Sorry, I didn't explain that well. What I'm implying above is that I noticed a lot of similar, strange behavior. If it was a choice of staying in his comfort zone or wasting money and time he would always choose the former.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:55 PM on August 29, 2010


Damn, I got that explanation wrong too, but you know what I mean.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:15 PM on August 29, 2010


but a beer-and-lotto hole in the wall

Beer and Wine are not sold in corner stores in Ontario, by law. Every year some politician talks about relaxing the law, but it never happens.
posted by ovvl at 5:02 AM on August 30, 2010


I know somebody who panhandled for a while; they claimed they could easily make $50 an hour if in a good location

It's not quite panhandling, but in the early-mid nineties there was a very affable Big Issue seller on Broad St in Oxford who sold a lot of magazines and made a lot of cash. He was almost a local celebrity. Everybody's friend. Tons of regular customers.

Anyway, things started to go sour when stories kept popping up of how much money this guy seemed to have. £100 on two tickets to a college ball. Always getting his sandwiches at the fancy place the students couldn't typically afford. He also appeared to be commuting up from London each day, although from exactly where nobody was quite sure.

Rumour was he controlled some of the prime Big Issue pitches. As the odd story on him and his apparent finances appeared in local papers he disappeared.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:19 AM on August 30, 2010


I did some searching, and can't find any reputable studies on how many panhandlers had drug problems or how much they made. It seems almost exclusively to be conjecture and urban legend.

I have some personal experience with homelessness and panhandling. And that experience is that most homeless don't panhandle, but rely on an extensive network of social services. Those that do panhandle are chronically homeless, and almost all have issues with chemical addiction and mental illness.

Of the non-homeless I knew, every single one was an addict, and begged just enough to get a bottle or a rock. Give to panhandlers if you like -- the morality of the act isn't one anybody is going to agree on. I don't, because I don't wish to financially support someone's addiction, but that's a personal choice.

But know that giving to panhandlers offers brief and temporary help, if at all. If you want to have longer-lasting impact, couple the money you give to panhandlers with money to organizations that help the homeless, the mentally I'll, and the chemically dependent. It's always possible to find a meal on the streets, with or without panhandling. Finding real help is much harder, and the organizations that offer this help are chronically understaffed and underfunded.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:26 AM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


I wonder how much difference the value of the gift card would make to a homeless person or a non-homeless person? If you hand someone a $25.00 card as opposed to a $100.00 card, for example, would they spend the larger amount more recklessly? Or would a smaller amount be spent quickly while a larger amount be viewed as a long-term source of cash to be parceled out?

I am struck by the historical perspective on the unhealthy, expensive food choices of the urban poor. In London, for example, the underclasses didn't have kitchens as a rule until half way through the 20th century and good, fresh ingredients in the city were usually beyond their means. Bread and milk-- to name two basic foodstuffs-- were adulterated with all sorts of unhealthy additives such as chalk. At least today's consumer can rely on a can of Chef Boyardee containing exactly what it says on the can and nothing more. No lead. No arsenic. No catmeat.

In David Copperfield when the very young David is yanked out of school and sent off to work in the bottle warehouse (based on Dickens' own childhood) he must feed himself with a few pennies a day. Alas! He passes two pudding shops on his way home and often squanders his money on stale pastry instead of the more nutritious bread and cheese and beer that he usually buys.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:01 AM on August 30, 2010


It would be something of an exaggeration to call myself an ex-beggar— I did only once, for reasons I will make clear—but I thought it worthwhile to share my experience.

The why is simple: I needed to eat. I was homeless— not street homeless, but squatting in very unstable conditions, so only really a couple of steps removed— and I had no food and no money.

How much? I stopped when I had just enough to buy food. I can't remember exact amounts (this was over 20 years ago) but it was roughly equivalent to minimum wage, over a hour or so — it wouldn't have been possible to do it for much longer. I have known people who seemed to have a knack (or at least cheek) and could bring in money at a reasonable rate though nothing like the stories.

Why did I only do it once? It's very simple. It is utterly soul destroying. If you ever want to feel the depth of contempt one human being can have for another go begging. Right there and then I decided it didn't matter how bad things got it was going to be a one way spiral downwards and (temporary) hunger was a much better option.

I don't have a lot of money now, and I 'm wary of funding other people's addictions (though there are worse ways of supporting them) so I don't often give money, though I will on occasion. But I always, always, always refuse politely— a simple shrug 'sorry' will suffice— and I think it is clear from the reactions I tend to get that treating people as a fellow human being has a value all of its own.
posted by tallus at 10:16 AM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here in Rochester most of our homeless people are nomads. I get chased down by the same guy once or twice a week. I always offer him whatever change I have or a smoke. He always declines and chases down the next person. I've met 5 or 6 guys like him and never seen a sit-down w/ a sign type.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:08 AM on August 30, 2010


About six years ago here in Austin I had the misfortune of being homeless myself. Misfortune may not be the best choice of words since it wasn't sheer happenstance that led to my plight, but back story is irrelevant, I just want to convey my experiences and leave it to others to draw their own conclusions.

Anyway, I quickly found that my greatest concern - acquiring food - was actually the least of my worries. Aside from the homeless shelter itself there were a number of churches that either offered onsite soup kitchens or actually sent out sandwich trucks to parks that homeless people were known to frequent. A person with no set schedule and reasonable mobility - which in Austin includes free bus passes to the homeless - could theoretically eat 5-6 times a day and still have leftovers. In fact, considering the carb-heavy content of the food being offered I actually managed to GAIN weight over the course of the five months I was out on the streets.

The homeless shelter had a phone line set up that you could give to prospective employers, and when the employers called that number they got a generic voice mail response that didn't tip off that they were calling a homeless shelter. At the end of the day one of the shelter employees would go through the messages and write down the relevant info on individual note cards. The next morning you checked the job board to see if there was anything with your name on it, and if so there was a bank of phones right there in the shelter that you could use to call them back.

It was in this manner I eventually got a job and got back on my feet, but lest this come off as an unequivocal feel good story, I would like to point out that literally ALL of the housing assistance programs I looked into virtually required that you put off any job search until you'd jumped through all of their hoops, those hoops mainly consisting of short-notice, weekday appointments with counselors of both the employment and mental health variety. That's right, in order to increase your likelihood of qualifying for housing assistance - of which there obviously isn't an infinite amount to go around - you nearly HAVE to convince them that you have some sort of mental health condition that makes procuring and maintaining employment a difficulty for you.

If you attempt to get around the problem of making these appointments by taking a job that requires you to work off hours you'll likely lose your bed at the homeless shelter by failing to make their curfew. Which is exactly what happened to me: when I finally got a job working at a call center, I drew the 3-midnight shift and had to sleep on benches and in door jambs for a couple weeks until that first paycheck came through.

So yeah, there is a whole web of interlocking personal motives and dangling institutional carrots with strings attached, all conspiring to keep people on the streets once they've hit rock bottom. Also, the whole mental health issue in regards to the homeless is a VERY broad issue: you've got people that were driven to homelessness in the first place due to mental health issues, you've got people that are feigning mental issues to some extent or another to garner more sympathy, and then - most commonly, in my experience - you have those whose mental condition has deteriorated as a result of environmental conditions while out on the streets: exposure, irregular sleeping habits, poor nutrition, the quality of company one keeps, etc... all of these can quickly degrade one's decision making processes, and that's not even counting substance abuse.

Even for those who maintain their sanity & sobriety quite well while out on the streets, there are an almost infinite number of circumstances that led to them being homeless to begin with. The one that I hear talked about the least is the felony issue. It's very difficult to find gainful, steady employment with a major felony on your record. I imagine it's also difficult finding a landlord willing to work with you, particularly if you're in a city like Austin with a low vacancy rate (which translates into a competitive application process for the prospective resident).

Well, shit, I kind of did end up allowing myself to digress a bit. The point I meant to make is that in the five months I was out on the streets, I never once had to "hang a sign" or beg strangers for change. Granted, I missed a lot of the old amenities - even something as simple as having a TV to watch in order to kill time - but in my mind I associated panhandling with giving up, and I guess I felt like submitting to temptation would in some way be permanently casting my lot with joblessnes. In fact, my most vivid memory of being on the streets was one of those last few days while I was waiting for that first check to kick in. Someone who'd been out drinking in one of the downtown bars woke me from the door jamb I was sleeping in and held out a five dollar bill in my direction. I wouldn't take it. By that point I was more or less home free (no pun intended) and after months of holding my ground by not soliciting cash I felt like I'd be betraying my own ethics by caving at that point... even though I didn't ask for the guy's money. In hindsight I'm not sure what my logic was there, since the vast majority of food I'd consumed over the past several months had been donated by charitable individuals to either the homeless shelter or one of the churches, and as such was more or less synonymous with cash, but for whatever reason it seemed important to me at the time.

But my point is not to give ammo to those who want to paint the majority of vagrants as scam artists. At the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to sit here and tell you that those people NEED to be out on the street corners to survive. The truth is somewhere in the middle: it's all found money. You've got no job, no real money to entertain yourself on... your days are basically just one long expanse of empty hours with nowhere in particular to be. Throw in a sense of dignity that has long since been rendered to tatters and the question becomes why NOT hang a sign, see if you can convert some of that endless free time into cold hard cash? Obviously no one begging for change is driving a BMW to their mansion in the hills - if there was that much money to be made panhandling the homeless shelters would be deserted - but the opposite extreme is just as much of a myth: these guys are unlikely to starve or freeze to death just because you didn't stop and drop a dollar in their bucket.

Whether you choose to give money to homeless people, then, is sheerly a personal decision, but if you choose to give do so with clear eyes: all you're likely doing is paying for a vice or upgrading their lunch slightly from two day old 7-11 sandwiches to the 99-cent menu at McDonald's. If that's what you want to do with your money, good on you, although I'd argue that you'd be accomplishing a lot more donating that same amount to one of the homeless charities. Either way, please don't get judgmental toward those who choose to use their own limited resources in different ways. Anyone who pays taxes is automatically putting money in the kitty toward social services, and even if that's an involuntary contribution it still affects one's bottom line, and you can't take that away from them.
posted by squeakyfromme at 12:51 PM on August 30, 2010 [10 favorites]


A while ago the Toronto Sun did an investigation of Margita Bangova, known sometimes as the Shaking Lady

Can anyone find a link to photos or the Czech television documentary mentioned in this article?
posted by viva viola at 3:34 PM on August 30, 2010


Payday loans are a bit of an interesting case. An op-ed in the WSJ a few months ago (can't find the link) noted that prior to the rise of the payday loan industry, the same services were controlled by organized crime rings. At the very least, payday loan shops operate in daylight and under tight regulatory control. Their rates are indeed usurious, but they also won't murder you if you can't pay. Don't most of us make similar notions about the drug trade?

Payday/car title loans are not legal in all states. So, in the states where they are not legal, is there really a need for these services? I'm not seeing anyone campaigning to bring payday loan places to those that don't have them, except by the lobbyists for that industry - certainly not anyone involved with advocacy. If there is indeed a need for low-cost check cashing and loan services, do payday loan places really fill a void, or do they just take over where the loan sharks left off? IOW, seems like a Hobson's choice to me, and that better options are possible.

BTW, if drugs are made legal, presumably the risk you mention would go away, thereby making the price much more reasonable. I would not want to pay street prices for legal drugs - bootleg booze is typically much more expensive than legal.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:29 PM on August 30, 2010


At the very least, payday loan shops operate in daylight and under tight regulatory control.

BTW, this is not necessarily true. Regulations differ from state to state.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:35 PM on August 30, 2010


krinklyfig wrote: "Payday/car title loans are not legal in all states."

No, but check cashing services are. When Arkansas banned payday loans, they immediately turned into check cashing places that just so happen to also help you apply for a short term loan with an out of state company, and a printer on which to print the check said out of state company issues.

And, of course, being a check cashing place, they are more than happy to cash the check the loan company sent.
posted by wierdo at 4:44 PM on August 30, 2010


I agree that [people] are often, and maybe even more often than not, truly needy. But if you don't think there aren't more than a few con artists among them, then think again.

FIFY - as someone that has known grifters that talked their way into $100,000/year jobs - there are con artists in ALL socio-economic classes, no need to stigmatise anyone panhandling.

(As an aside, any non-Toronto mefite would probably be horrified at the lack of affordable housing in the city, plus it is hard enough to rent a place with a good job, nice clothes and cash in hand).
posted by saucysault at 6:15 PM on August 30, 2010


Can anyone find a link to photos or the Czech television documentary mentioned in this article?

Is this the DVD cover?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:21 PM on August 30, 2010


It takes all kinds, and that includes panhandlers and beggars. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and that dude really actually is trying to get some gas money to get to an interview. Other times, not so much.

Like getting hit up by the same woman with a child, 'desperate' for subway fare home. Only she hits you 2 weeks in a row, at different locations. It's amazingly easy to give someone like that a token (this was NYC in the days of subway tokens).
posted by Goofyy at 2:38 AM on August 31, 2010


In my old neighborhood, the panhandlers would hang out on the corner across from two sandwich shops. If I was going to buy a sandwich anyway, and felt generous, I'd ask what they wanted and get it for them. I rarely gave actual money and they always seemed grateful.
posted by desjardins at 8:56 AM on August 31, 2010


i first saw something like this on the old need.com site. i imagine, though, the issue is as old as mankind & will remain until the end of time. i just like the site (even though this is at least the 2.0 version and not the original) and thought i'd stick a link in here.
posted by msconduct at 7:49 AM on September 1, 2010


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