Coming Home
March 23, 2008 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Homeless people are just too lazy to work, aren't they? Besides, they panhandle to get by, so what's the big deal? What does it mean to be homeless [previously] anyway? How do people find themselves in these sorts of situations, and why can't they get out of them? How do they feel about it? And are there any alternatives that we can supply them with?
posted by hadjiboy (69 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent set of links about a problem we all live with and almost none of the "lucky ones" do anything about. I am in daily contact (if you can call it that) right now with a homeless man who basically lives at the public community center where I work. We're a designated cooling/warming center so we must allow anyone who wants to, to come in and sit, all day if they want. This guy is weird and clearly disturbed, smells bad, but he's quiet and respectful-- he just creeps everyone out. When I asked whether there was anything we could do to find someplace else for him (feeling guilty as hell for even asking) I was informed, by the social service people at the city, that he must initiate the contact. So now I struggle with my distaste, my liberal guilt, and my helplessness. Your post doesn't offer any answers specific to one individual like this, it does help me understand this guy a little better. A redemptive post for Easter day. Thank you.
posted by nax at 7:19 AM on March 23, 2008

No but wait, see one time I heard that a friend's mom saw a news story about a panhandler that at the end of the day got in a brand new BMW and drove off to his nice home in the suburbs.

This single anecdote relieves me from ever having to think seriously about homelessness or panhandlers. Or something.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 7:28 AM on March 23, 2008 [11 favorites]

I have no answers. I do know this: there are different reasons for homeless people--addiction, job loss, inability to pay rent etc, and that for many, living on the streets is preferable to shelters, considered unsafe for many. And then there are soup kitchens for those with places to stay but unable to get by sufficiently to buy food and on and on. We know though that with the present economomy in steep decline, this situation is going to worsen.
one small idea: use abandoned houses as temp shelters and pay the banks or whoever owns them a small fee--anything they get is better than the places sitting empty and unbought.
We now have tent cities springing up in Southern California and we must face this homelessness issue head on. Then too when many mental hospitals closed down, the inmates, on helpful drug meds, took to the streets and without the meds, have been an additional sub-group of the homeless. TV has focused a lot on kids who runaway, and this has its own causes for the problem. In sum: many different categories of homeless will require many different approches to the problem.

I do not yet see our candidates for the White House addressing this issue
posted by Postroad at 7:32 AM on March 23, 2008

Nax, when you say "social service people at the city" who exactly did you speak with? If you haven't spoken with someone at the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness yet, you should contact them and ask them how to get in touch with an outreach team. I know for a fact that Chicago has outreach teams that engage people on the street. In fact, Chicago has some of the best homeless services in the country, the Alliance is made up of about 80 different agencies that are very well coordinated in terms of resource utilization.

Don't be surprised, though, if you get in touch with an outreach team and they've already tried to engage this guy. A lot of people see homeless men and women on the streets and assume they've completely fallen between the cracks, but the fact is that they've likely been engaged at some point previously, be it on the streets by an outreach team, in a psych or d/a facility by a social worker, or by medical staff at a hospital in an attempt to provide social services. In fact, some of the most chronically homeless are the most well known to different agencies because they've been in and out of different facilities so many times. They have the right to refuse services for as long as they want as long as they aren't an imminent danger to themselves or others, and many refuse services for a decade before finally coming up off the streets.
posted by The Straightener at 7:43 AM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the post, hadjiboy.

I'd like to call attention here also to above commenter The Staightener's recent related post to MetaFilter Projects here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2008

well-built and interesting post, a story in the Balto Sun I thought about posting (but way too thin on it's own) is about one of the recent victims of local 'bus violence' who just left (oddly?) witness protection after her attackers were found guilty. A parable of how life can go all to shit for the want of a nail, as they say.
posted by dawson at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2008

Nax, when you say "social service people at the city" who exactly did you speak with?

This is in Evanston; I spoke with the Human Relations department. They weren't unsympathetic, and they actually knew this individual, they just won't (can't?) do anything. I was concerned because the facility caters almost exclusively to children, which I realize is a terribly unenlightened reaction to this guy. Assuming that the "Chicago" part of your organization is a genernal term, I'll try them. I guess at this point what I want as much as to help this guy is to understand my place and my behavior in such a situation.
posted by nax at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2008

A lot of people incorrectly conflate panhandlers with homeless people. Many panhandlers have homes, and they beg because the money is better and the work is easier than getting a job. Many homeless people have jobs and would never consider begging. Although there is some overlap between the groups, that overlap isn't big enough to discuss them as if they are the same group of people.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

um, general term.
posted by nax at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2008

Thanks, flapjax, I wished the paper gave me more space for that story, the kind of wacky charismatics that tend to front the real street level organizations are pure gold as far as I'm concerned and I could have gone on about a couple others I've worked with. I realize the average mefite might bristle a bit at the deep Jesus going on there but these agencies do the kind of work that nobody else will. Also, a lot of guys on the street prefer Mission type settings because they are very off the map and require little of the consumer; there's no registration, no being logged in the city system as a shelter user, no chance someone's going to find out you've got a warrant on you, very little demands as far as clean time or medication compliance, all of which are things that tend to keep guys who aren't ready to prosper on the streets. In these settings you let the preacher man talk Jesus at you for fifteen minutes and then you eat and get a place to lay down. It's not a bad deal, though the conditions at a lot of these places would drain the color out of your face. They are unfortunately usually too thinly funded and serving way too many people.

Not that I think this type of service should be expanded; supportive permanent housing built around a harm reduction framework is clearly the way of the future, that most cities are now structuring their ten year plans around.
posted by The Straightener at 8:11 AM on March 23, 2008

I thought the US government had started a program where the homeless are used to make a nutritious low-cost dog-food? Have I been lied to?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:18 AM on March 23, 2008

They weren't unsympathetic, and they actually knew this individual, they just won't (can't?) do anything.

I suspected as much. Unfortunately, it's probably a can't and not a won't scenario. Nobody can be compelled to engage in social services. It's hard to accept that sometimes, but that's how it is (and as I think it should be). I would recommend following up with the Chicago Alliance anyway for a second opinion; share your concerns for the children with them and ask them what they feel your next step should be.
posted by The Straightener at 8:19 AM on March 23, 2008

I've been homeless a few times, as have other members of my family and social group.

If anyone here is confused about how relatively normal people can suddenly end up in deep poverty and then find themselves homeless, feel free to contact me with your questions and we can talk about the situations I have first-hand knowledge about.

In Albuquerque, I was part of a group which founded the ABQ Homeless Union - our motto was "Homeless Not Helpless". We even had a demonstration downtown with signs, letting the citizens know we'd rather have jobs than jail and preferred homes to shelters or underpasses.

For these reasons and many others, I am grateful for conversations like this one.
posted by batmonkey at 8:40 AM on March 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm currently working on a video about the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. In one of our interviews, a woman who coordinates homeless shelters with relief agencies, told this story (this is verbatim from our transcript) about the working homeless:


As I mentioned, 60% of homeless people work, and the vast majority of them work at something called day labor or temporary labor industry. And the way day labor works - the best way to get a feel for it is to go through a day in the life of a day labor worker. There's about 5 day labor halls in Cincinnati, and one of the worst ones is actually, it's called Labor Solutions, it's on Liberty Street. So, you get to the labor hall about 4 o'clock in the morning, because it's first come, first serve, and they decide who, you know, goes out for the day based on who was there first. So you wait, and wait, and wait, and then around 7 or 8 AM, they give you a ticket to go out to work, if they feel like it. There's a lot of um, preference paid, there's a lot of, um, favors exchanged for the ability to go out to work that day. So you could wait all that time and still not be sent out on a job. But if you are chosen, you go and you get on the bus, and you go out to your jobsite, and you work for 8 hours, or sometimes more. And the kind of work these day labor workers perform - it's the, it's unskilled, unskilled labor and a lot of times it's the hardest jobs in the city. There's jobs sorting trash on a conveyor belt at Rumpke. Cleaning up the stadiums after the Reds games or the Bengals games. And I always point out that everyone sees the panhandlers outside the Reds games, they don't see the 200 homeless people cleaning up their spilled beer and pretzels after the Reds games. But anyway, so they go out to these kinds of jobs, they work for their 8 hours, then they get back on the bus and they're taken back to the labor hall and then they wait a few more hours until they get their checks. Sometimes they're forced to wait before they start their job. So, all told, they get back to the labor hall and actually get their check in their hand about 9PM that night. So it's been 4AM to 9PM. They're paid for however many hours they worked, and if they're sent to Kentucky, they're paid Kentucky minimum wage, which is $5.15 instead of the $6.85 in Ohio. There's $7 deducted for the bus ride, which is a full hour's worth of work, that they lose. There's all these miscellaneous fees if they had to use any safety equipment - goggles, glovers, they're charged two or three dollars for the use of that equipment for the day. So, all told, they've been at work from 4AM to 9PM and they leave with anywhere from $25 to $40 in their pocket. Then they have to pay to get their check cashed, so that takes a few more dollars off of it. And that's not even enough to get a hotel room for the night. A lot of people aren't able to access bank accounts so they're walking around with this money in cash, and a lot of them get robbed. So it's this new, modern form of slavery, essentially, where it keeps people deliberately below the level where they're able to sustain themselves. And the labor halls know it, and they go and pick people up at shelters and drop them back off at shelters. And I personally think that's one of the biggest issues facing homeless people. In Cincinnati, it's homeless people working those jobs. In other parts of the country, it's undocumented workers working those types of jobs. And there's just no safety constraints or anything. So one of the things we've done, we started the day labor organizing project. Two weeks ago, there was a man actually, a day labor worker, who was killed at Rumpke. He fell into a tire shredder, he had his arm ripped off and he died a couple weeks later from his injuries. When OSHA went in and investigated, they found seven to nine life-threatening violations on this piece of machinery. And the day labor workers knew that this machinery was unsafe they just couldn't do anything about it, they couldn't get Rumpke to listen to them. Rumpke was fined $17,000 - they plea-bargained it down to $17,000 and they're off the hook and gonna start it over again. So, that was one issue with them. Another issue, we actually have a class action lawsuit going forward now against, I believe this one is the Reds, because the Reds, for the baseball games, for cleaning the stadium, they bring the day labor workers out and literally put them in a holding pen. It's a fenced-in area where they can't see the game or anything and they have to wait for their shift to start. And if there's a fireworks delay or if the game runs late or if there's a rain delay, they're kept in that pen and they're not charged for the time that they're there. And if they leave they don't get to work that day. So, um, we're trying to sue over unpaid time, because if you require that somebody be at a jobsite, it's law that you have to pay them for it. Another issue that we're looking at trying to do a lawsuit about is, all of the fees push their hourly wage below minimum wage. And the new minimum wage law is very clear that you cannot pay them and then deduct things from them that put them below hourly minimum wage. So we're looking at a possibility of doing a lawsuit on that. And, we're trying to pass city-wide legislation that would regulate the day labor industry. Because that's the problem. When we complain, they say, Oh, that's the worksite's problem. And the worksite says, Oh no, that's the labor hall's problem. So nobody's taking responsibility for these gross violations of workers rights that are going on. And, ultimately, what the message we want to get across is, the stereotype that homeless people are lazy, won't get a job, all of that, not true. They're working harder than anybody in this city. They're just not earning what they need to be self-sufficient and they're not being treated they need to be to have any kind of dignity in that work. So, that's one of the big issues that we're working on right now.


Pretty repugnant stuff.
posted by billysumday at 8:42 AM on March 23, 2008 [184 favorites]

Malcolm Gladwell's Million-Dollar Murray piece for the New Yorker really changed how I thought about what a city could do for its homeless. Even just the thought of changing a mental simulation of the situation from a bell curve to more of a hockey stick makes helping those who need it most seem more possible.

I'm also pretty fascinated by Seattle's Urban Rest Stop, a place to do your laundry and take a hot shower. I'm sure there are most non-profits like this, but this is the one I noticed first.
posted by lauranesson at 8:43 AM on March 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

Two references about this : first, Patrick Declerck's work, Les naufragés (shipwreck victims), unfortunately this work doesn't seem to be available in English. Mr Declerck spent several years providing a psychoanalysis consultancy within an open hospital. In the book, he reports both his analysis about what he heard, his attemps at spending several days as a homeless in the streets of Paris, to understand the difficulties they were facing the hard way, and describes the shortcomings of the care system itself. An English article of the same author seems to be available here. Second one : since there's an insurance system in France which gives to everyone a small amount of money to live on a rather modest but sufficient basis, some people are refusing to go back to work, managing to live with that state benefit. Pierre Carles has released a movie about it : attention danger travail. His works have long been banned from the official media, but you can catch some glimpses on youtube.
posted by nicolin at 8:43 AM on March 23, 2008

Just had a chat with a mentally-ill man who is well known in my town. It's sad to see someone with a remarkably sharp, but troubled intellect, and sadder to know that so many people have tried to help, unsuccessfully.

Here in the UK, The Big Issue provides a prominent means for homeless people to work and people to help them out, without resorting to begging. There are, however, other issues this raises.
posted by honest knave at 8:44 AM on March 23, 2008

Homeless Nation is Canada's only website created by and for Homeless Canadians. We are dedicated to providing the tools for homeless Canadians to share their stories.
posted by regicide is good for you at 9:17 AM on March 23, 2008

The kind of thing that billysumday's comment describes is also talked about from a different angle in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and dimed, on (not) getting by in America. The book's not specifically about homelessness, but it is about the conditions that lead to homelessness -- it's about the American working class and how hard it is for you to keep afloat if you're in it. And it's about the unexamined assumptions underlying homelessness -- especially the sense that seems to pervade American consciousness that homelessness is the result of moral failings on the part of those who are homeless.
posted by blucevalo at 9:34 AM on March 23, 2008

I was homeless for a period of three weeks when I was 18, and it was one of the worst periods of my life. Whenever I hear about someone "choosing" to be homeless or "they're homeless because they're lazy" or something I want to smack them in the gob.
posted by ShawnStruck at 9:57 AM on March 23, 2008

I live in Victoria, BC, a Canadian city with a large number of homeless folks. I don't suffer from liberal guilt, but I do suffer when my son encounters a syringe in the park, or a human turd outside of our favourite coffee shop on Fisgard Street.

While vacancy rates and housing affordability are issues are there own, the chief cause of homelessness in British Columbia is so called "dual-diagnosis": those who suffer from drug addiction and mental illness. Such people will never get off the street without the help of the community.

For what it's worth, there are plenty of social services (if not rooms or beds) for homeless folks in Victoria and Vancouver. So I don't feel guilty about not giving a panhandler my spare change. They have food to eat, and I will not support someone else's crack habit.

And there is political recognition that more housing needs to be built. So I don't go to sleep at night in my crappy two-bedroom rented apartment feeling liberal guilt.

I just wish that when government (or, in this case, the regional health authority) wants to locate a needle exchange across the street from an elementary school someone else gave their head a shake first.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2008

And, we're trying to pass city-wide legislation that would regulate the day labor industry.

but then they'd just move it outside of the city limits - i strongly suggest you work at a state level on this
posted by pyramid termite at 10:20 AM on March 23, 2008

Poor People by William T. Vollmann does an excellent job of looking at the poor on an international level and does it in a way that does not excuse liberal guilt or those with the driving away in a BMW story. I highly recommend it (sorry if it was posted in this thread already, but I didn't see it).

The Straightener had an excellent comment not long ago in a post about Skid Row (so sorry for linking back to a post I made, but the comment is worth making myself look like an ass).

Thanks for the post, hadjiboy.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2008

Jacqueline: Many panhandlers have homes, and they beg because the money is better and the work is easier than getting a job.

I've heard that before, but I've never believed it. I guess because none of the panhandlers I've met in Baton Rouge and NOLA didn't fit that image, so until I see data I'm calling bullshit. If I'm wrong, fine, but I've never seen anything that remotely resembled that situation... on the surface it sounds like an extension of Reagan's infamous "welfare queen" myth.
posted by grimcity at 10:58 AM on March 23, 2008

I note that a number of comments refer to "liberal guilt." Liberals often feel guilty; conservatives feel Rage. Why not then become a "libertarian" and feel nothing?
posted by Postroad at 11:11 AM on March 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

There is a set of homeless people rarely talked about: the just released prisoners are left out of jail with $50 and no ID. Unless they have a family that takes them in they are on the streets without resources. It takes money to get a driver license, it takes time and money to obtain a copy of a birth certificate, especially in this post 9-11 climate. This, to me, is institutionalized homelesness.

The most pressing need, according to the homeless themeselves, is cleanliness. You have no idea how they long for clean underwear and socks, and bars of soap, and showers. One of the service groups I belong to feeds the homeless every two weeks, alternating with a church. I have asked what they need several times and the answer I usually get is " showers, clean clothes, a place to wash clothes".
They seem to have no trouble finding food on a regular base. There are a lot of churches that provide free meals and, to my surprise, a large group of restaurants where they can get some food if they go to the back door.

The second set of homeless people who are very resistant to "official help" is the mentally ill. I know first hand their resistance to take medication, their paranoia and suspiciousness, their general distrust. Their dual diagnosis makes their life even more difficult. I'm starting to think that empowerment, and control over their fate, perhaps following the NY fountainhouse model, might be the answer to this particular set of homeless.
posted by francesca too at 11:33 AM on March 23, 2008

Fantastic post, fantastic comments. Thanks everyone, threads like this really remind me what the best of mefi is all about.
posted by marble at 11:49 AM on March 23, 2008

Many panhandlers have homes, and they beg because the money is better and the work is easier than getting a job.

Was it Rush Limbaugh that told you that, or Sean Hannity? Or maybe one of those email forwards?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:28 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

As far as prisoners are concerned, Operation Starting Line is a really decent program; it coordinates help within the prisoner's community to provide for a mentor and help with getting a job. Finding work with a criminal record isn't so easy and volunteers in the program serve as a liaison between prisoner and employer. The program was started by Chuck Colson and Franklin Graham so naturally they network with fellow Christians to make this program work. Problem is, people had concerns about it being a "religious" program and got the ACLU to try to shut it down. As a result, the program has been shut down at many prisons. Now any chance of turning the tide on recidivism has been virtually defeated. This program's goal was to help prisoners in every state to keep recidivism down and get the community involved. Pretty decent program might serve as a model applied to other problems like homelessness, perhaps?
posted by thatdowdygirl at 12:41 PM on March 23, 2008

The LA Times has a strangely timely article on the difficulties, costs
and benefits of medical treatment for "the homeless".

Some samples:

Seventy-four percent of L.A.'s homeless are disabled in some way; 33% suffer severe mental illness; 35% are physically disabled; 42% struggle with addiction; and 50% are clinically depressed.

...results of a study of homeless mortality in the county from January 2000 through May 2007. This study presented the sobering statistic that the average age of death was 48.

And this Seattle program has been in the works for years. Naturally, they have been the target
of lawsuit after lawsuit, but seem to have finally prevailed.

On this Easter, I am struck by how un-Jesus-like our treatment is of the sick, hungry, and powerless.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:01 PM on March 23, 2008

Jacqueline: Many panhandlers have homes, and they beg because the money is better and the work is easier than getting a job.

grimcity: I've heard that before, but I've never believed it. I guess because none of the panhandlers I've met in Baton Rouge and NOLA didn't fit that image, so until I see data I'm calling bullshit. If I'm wrong, fine, but I've never seen anything that remotely resembled that situation... on the surface it sounds like an extension of Reagan's infamous "welfare queen" myth.

OK. Some data:

"A survey conducted by the Coos Bay Police Department found that people who ask for money outside the Wal-Mart on Newmark Avenue can make $300 in one day. In comparison, an employee inside the store, working at minimum wage, would need to put in five, eight-hour days to make that much."


"Craddock noted that most panhandlers are on public assistance and know where to go to receive help.

“Most (panhandlers) have lived here a long time and actually have homes,” he said. “This is just their chosen profession.”

"According to a recent survey conducted by the Downtown Denver Partnership, 42% of the population has given money to panhandlers in the past year and the average person there gives $1.84 each time he or she is approached by a panhandler, for a total of about $25 a year. This adds up to an awful lot of money - a total of over $4.6 million, divided among about a thousand panhandlers. That's an average of about $50,000 per active panhandler per year, with confidential interviews with panhandlers indicating that they make between $35,000 and $100,000 tax free per year and view panhandling as the equivalent of a job or a profession. Some even have homes and support families on their panhandling income."

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I feel a little funny, since you guys pay out of your own pockets. Do you know how much we make out here, panhandling, during rush hour?’

“No, how much?”

“About a dollar a minute.”

"One of her most successful interviewees was a man named Robert who collected about $40 to $45 a day in the tourist-heavy area outside of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Robert was in his 70s and handicapped, he had lost an eye and he was in a wheelchair, but he wasn't homeless. Robert wore a clean, pressed jacket over a turtleneck and whispered a soft, "God bless you," to passers-by."


"Another panhandler who made money was a woman named Easy, who referred to her job as "hustling." Her approach was creative and funny, which played well, especially in the student areas near New York University recalled Davies. Easy had a different approach, cracking jokes and trying to "talk people out of their money." She made about $60 a day."

"Another complication arises from the unstated belief that panhandlers should stop annoying the rest of us and get a job at McDonald's. The reported "earnings" of panhandlers interviewed on Needcom range from $15 to $100 per day. At the higher end, assuming a six-day "work" week, that's nearly $30,000 a year untaxed--nearly three times the $5.15 hourly minimum wage."

They even have their own market research site:

And some personal anecdotes:

My ex-husband and I once picked up a "homeless" panhandler, drove him to the Greyhound station, and gave him the money he said he needed to buy a bus ticket "home". We saw him about a week later on the same street corner, with a new sign, asking for more money to get "home", with a different (more distant) location listed as "home". A couple months later, my ex-husband found himself on the same city bus as the guy, sign and all. My ex watched where he went when he exited the bus. The panhandler walked over to a nice condo building and used a key to let himself in.

My friend owned a hotel in Seattle. In the late 90's the labor market was so tight that he couldn't hire enough workers for his housekeeping department. He went down to the corner and tried to hire the panhandler with the "will work for food" sign. The panhandler refused to take the job because my friend said "no" when the panhandler asked if he could drink all day long on the job.

There are many thousands of stories like these.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:10 PM on March 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

Pretty repugnant stuff.

I agree. Needs paragraph breaks desperately.
posted by hjo3 at 1:48 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jacqueline, you are right that some panhandlers use the system to make a living: there are always people who take advantage of the kindness and compassion of other people. They appear homeless, but they actually are not.

Most homeless I know live at shelters, or in a car, or under a highway bridge. Some have a job that does not stretch to provide a shelter for themselves and the children with them. Some are too ill and confused to work at all. Some are on drugs or alcoholic.

It is hard sometimes to distinguish between the two types so one's choice is to help or not. I personally have made the choice to help as much as I'm able, which, believe me, is not a whole lot. I always feel that I receive so much more than I give, and it does not matter a whole lot to me if I'm being taken advantage.
posted by francesca too at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2008

It's better to give to programs that help the homeless than to give to panhandlers, since the panhandlers who are best at it (and thus are the ones receiving most of the money that is given to panhandlers) are the "professionals" who often aren't actually homeless. Or, look for someone who is obviously homeless but is not begging and give the money directly to them.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:06 PM on March 23, 2008


Regarding the Downtown Denver Partnership's "survey" and subsequent "findings":

Prove any part of it or them.
The alleged Denver Post article linked to by the blog you linked to no longer exists (if it ever did.)

A few questions:

Can you point to anything other than bloviating bloggers and non-fact-oriented "sources" for your "part" in this conversation?
Where is this "survey?"
How many "people" were "interviewed" and by whom?

(why am i wasting my time responding to this sort of trolling?)
posted by mer2113 at 2:08 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are many thousands of stories like these.

And for every one of them I'd wager there are three more of people truly suffering. There are con artists in absolutely every sector (for lack of a better word) of the economy (certain "respectable" jobs are really nothing but); poor con artists just happen to be among the small percentile who don't receive something from tacit approval to country-wide approbation for it. Maybe because they remind us what a joke our modern economy is. Maybe because they remind us people get left behind. Maybe just because yes, they do often smell.

It's true that many panhandlers have places to sleep. Housing very often takes up all of their income, and if they get it in their head that they might like to eat that month, they usually have little choice but to panhandle, especially if they aren't qualified for employment, have substance dependency or mental health issues, or just don't have a phone number to put on job applications.

It's shameful that the tiny minority of people you describe ruin it for them and tar their reputation, but personally I find the scammers pretty easy to peg - and spending just a bit of time with street people makes you realize pretty quickly that someone like the condo-dwelling panhandler are a statistically insignificant exception to a surprisingly prevalent rule.

I dare say it would be less of a problem if social programs were funded such that people begging out of need wasn't so normalized; unfortunately, the kind of anecdotal evidence and surveys of questionable methodology that you link to are also used to justify crusades against social assistance.

And let's say someone was just barely employable - qualified to pick up needles in a city park, clean bus station toilets, or participate in some pointless government make-work program. I honestly can't say I'd be quick to fault them for preferring to beg. If you're good at it, and stand to make as much money, why not skip the part where some fourth-rung assistant manager treats you like shit ten hours a day for trying to be a "productive" member of society like everyone tells you to? I should say my experience is that most people on the street would jump (and have jumped) at the chance to collect a real paycheque, but I'm not going to begrudge anyone their small dignities.

All the stories you link to don't change the fact that the reality of the economy doesn't come close to resembling the rhetoric, and that a shameful number of people are going without the basic necessities of life in the middle of some of the most wealthiest settlements in human history. If you don't want to give change, don't. But I'm really leery of the implication that to do so is to battle some social ill through principled non-participation. Poverty is a disaster, and that much worse for being artificial.
posted by regicide is good for you at 2:10 PM on March 23, 2008 [8 favorites]

I don't doubt for a second that a handful of people have figured out a way to game the system, portray themselves as homeless and persuade people to give them money. But the idea that a lot of them, let alone a majority, are con artists is just, to me, one more sign of the meanness in our culture--if you're not successful, it's your fault. Take a look at a lot of commercials these days, not to mention nastiness on blogs. A whole lot of people are homeless because of bad luck. They weren't doing great to start with and then something happens that pushes them over the edge. And it's pretty damned tough to pull yourself back.
posted by etaoin at 2:36 PM on March 23, 2008

Here are some personal anecdotes from some of my own experiences:

There was this guy who was in charge of this company - let's call him "Steve". Biiiiiiiiig company, known the world over for being a big company and doing what big companies do.

One day, investor confidence fell a little and stock slipped by .80. This was a disaster! I mean, you know how important an overall gain is for a company to continue to climb every year, and that climb is vital to investors.

ANYWAY! Steve had to talk to the investors about this loss and he had to lay off some people, because that was the only thing they could do to make up for that .80 per stock loss, which, as you know, is vital for investors. He explained to the folks who would be vacating desks that as hard as this was, it was necessary in order for the company to go on. Everyone left behind had to work twice as hard, what with losing some folks and the hiring freeze that always go into effect in those scenarios. Salaries, too, were frozen.

And then - here's the part you're waiting for - Steve still got a bonus. $140,000, in fact.

If you're wondering how this relates, it's the other side of stories about folks who hang a sign saying they're homeless or helpless when they aren't.

Overstated financial straits are abused by multitudes on every level of the system, yet the same folks who dismiss *every* homeless person based on the behaviours of a few don't boycott the corporations which do the exact same thing on a far more massive and destructive scale.

Nor do they protest the government doing the exact same thing - "we can't fund your public schools and libraries and we have to leave our vulnerable mentally ill on the streets, but we can afford a trillion dollar war oil-field end run."

At least be consistent. That's all I ask. If one person is going to ruin it for all homeless people for you, let it be the same for institutions and corporations with inculcated malfeasance and corruption.
posted by batmonkey at 2:50 PM on March 23, 2008 [12 favorites]

"And for every one of them I'd wager there are three more of people truly suffering."

And if a "con artist" panhandler makes more than three times as much money as a "truly suffering" panhandler makes, then even if there are three times as many "truly suffering" people as "con artists", when you give to a panhandler your money is still more likely to go to a "con artist" than a "truly suffering" person. (For example, if the average "truly suffering" panhandler gets $30/day, and the average "con artist" panhandler gets $100/day, and there are 3 times as many "truly suffering" panhandlers as "con artists", then the "con artists" get 53% and the "truly suffering" panhandlers only get 47% of the money given -- 100/(100+30*3) vs. (30*3)/(100+30*3).)

Professional panhandlers seek out the best panhandling spots, experiment with different approaches (appearance, signs, stories, panhandling lines, etc.), and put in the hours necessary to make the daily income they require to support their lifestyle. Whereas a person who only begs when they are truly needy does not approach it with this level of organization and thus does not make nearly as much money as the professionals. So the professional handlers actually make much more than three times what the truly needy occasional panhandler makes, which means you could have an even higher ratio of truly needy panhandlers to professionals and the professionals would still get most of the money given to panhandlers.

"If you're good at it, and stand to make as much money, why not skip the part where some fourth-rung assistant manager treats you like shit ten hours a day for trying to be a "productive" member of society like everyone tells you to?"

Because the shitty low-paying job is the first rung on the ladder up. If you would rather pay people to spend their time begging instead of gaining job skills and work experience, go ahead -- it's your money -- but please don't delude yourself by thinking that you're helping them in the long run.

"If you don't want to give change, don't. But I'm really leery of the implication that to do so is to battle some social ill through principled non-participation."

My point is not to discourage someone from giving money to help the poor and homeless. My goal is to discourage people from giving money in ways that are ineffective or even counterproductive. There are many, many better ways to help the poor and homeless than giving money to panhandlers.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:57 PM on March 23, 2008

"There are many, many better ways to help the poor and homeless than giving money to panhandlers."

Like, if you're accustomed to giving your spare change to panhandlers, keep it and put it in a jar inside your door every day when you come home. At the end of the month (or whatever time period) take the jar to whatever local charity you know is doing good things to help the homeless or reduce poverty and give all your change to them instead.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:03 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you still feel that you should give money to panhandlers, please consider this:

You have to accept that there are at least SOME professional panhandlers, and that the professionals (due to their higher levels of organization and effort) are getting a disproportionate share of the money given to panhandlers. So take whatever ratios you believe those to be, however high or low YOU think they are, do the math, and figure out what percentage of the money that you give to panhandlers is likely going to a professional panhandler instead of to a truly needy person. If you don't want your money being spent on drugs or alcohol, also estimate what percentage of their money that you think truly needy panhandlers spend on those things and factor that in too. Now you should have a good estimate of how much of the money you give to panhandlers YOU think is being wasted on people or consumption that you don't want to support.

Now research charities that help the poor and homeless find the one with the lowest percentage spent on administrative overhead, fundraising, etc. (whatever is not being spent on the actual programs). Given that there are many volunteer-run charities with almost no administrative or fundraising expenses you should be able to find some that are quite low. (Do local "Food Not Bombs" groups have ANY non-program expenses?)

Compare these two percentages. Is more of your money wasted when you give it to panhandlers, or when you give it to charity?

Also, compare the effectiveness of the two giving approaches. Does giving money to a panhandler get them out of homelessness or poverty? No, almost never. Whereas, are there charities out there that address the underlying causes of homelessness and poverty and successfully, permanently pull people out? Yes, there are.

You just get so much more "bang for your buck" if you give to a good charity than if you give directly to a panhandler. For example, you want to give $5 to feed the hungry homeless. If you give it directly to homeless panhandler, even assuming that this person is legitimately needy and is not going to use it on drugs or alcohol, your $5 buys them perhaps one or two meals in a fast food restaurant. Whereas if you give $5 to a soup kitchen they can put it towards a bulk food purchase and your $5 will provide many, many more meals to needy people.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:32 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Civilization is not, nor has it ever been, one size that fits all.

Excellent post, hadjiboy!
posted by Laugh_track at 3:35 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

While realizing there are professional panhandlers (I have a number of friends and relatives who have offered good wages, as in 10-15 bucks an hour for legit work, mowing or whatever, and been rebuffed. Most recent story I recall, the guy demanded 20 an hour), I have on occasion gotten a beer or a pack of smokes for an obviously homeless person, usually when they didn't ask but were sitting in front of the store or whatever. Perhaps it's entirely counterproductive, but with so little pleasure (not saying they can't be happy w/o material things, indeed that aspect is perhaps liberating) in their lives I see a cig or a beer as about as helpful as giving directions to the soup kitchen and probably much more satisfying. I certainly don't care what they do with the money if that's what I choose to give. We all have our crutches, or we'd do a Hemingway. (still I've used far too many personal pronouns here)
posted by dawson at 3:51 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

It seems an awful lot of thought is going into figuring out ways and reasons not to give money to people and less to actual helping.
posted by etaoin at 3:52 PM on March 23, 2008 [7 favorites]

I meant in my own remarks
posted by dawson at 3:53 PM on March 23, 2008

I have said on here before that if you truly want to make a homeless person's day do not give them cash, buy them a pack of new socks or underwear. Socks and underwear aren't usually donated second hand and the agencies that provide them never have enough. At the day center where I used to work we were always running out of new socks, they would fly out the door as soon as we would get them. New socks are so valuable that we would use them as engagement tools on outreach. If you promised a guy a set of socks there was a much greater chance he would show up the following day to meet with you about providing other services.

Blankets and sleeping bags are big in the winter, but don't go crazy. Realize that if you hook a dude up with a brand new high end mummy bag from REI there's a good chance he's going to get assaulted for it before the winter's over.
posted by The Straightener at 4:06 PM on March 23, 2008

"It seems an awful lot of thought is going into figuring out ways and reasons not to give money to people and less to actual helping."

OK, point taken.

I think that the most effective strategy to ending homelessness are the "Housing First" programs -- that is, rent apartments for the homeless to live in so they are no longer homeless. EVERY other problem a homeless person has that is causing his or her poverty and homelessness -- health problems, mental illness, addiction, lack of employment, personal hygiene, food security, etc. -- will be MUCH easier for him or her to solve once he or she has a stable place to live.

I am not an expert on these programs (my personal focus is on international poverty, not domestic) but I imagine if you Google "Housing First" and your city name you can find out what is going on locally. Pick an organization that provides permanent housing to the homeless and bring them your jar of change that you would have otherwise given to panhandlers. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 4:19 PM on March 23, 2008

When we were kids in NYC, I knew a lot of people who would "spare change" for extra cash when bored on a free afternoon. If you have ripped up clothes anyway (& we were all punkish types) but are sorta healthy looking, and especially if you are female perhaps, then you just sit down, and you do get quite a lot of money. As teenagers we didn't think much of it one way or another - and you didn't lie about it, even sometimes be smart ass-y about it & say "spare any change for beer and cigarettes?" and still get $30 an hour or whatever (and we'd just be hanging out on the sidewalk having fun anyway, no downside unless it was cold out).

If you don't mind the idea of just passing money from one person to another, then giving to panhandlers is a fine way to do that, but if you are hoping that your money is going to the most needy, the people who otherwise really cannot make it, it may not be the best method. Of course, homeless organizations aren't the best method either, seeing how much overhead costs and poor management you're facing... Always a judgement call, in the end.

I think people like giving to panhandlers directly because it feels more personal than writing a check to a hospital or something, even though if you could follow that check it would be likely to go to something more central to saving life than handing money to people on the street. But if you don't mind that it might just be making someone's evening a little more enjoyable, rather than something more significant, then it's your money to give away, isn't it?
posted by mdn at 4:28 PM on March 23, 2008

I was homeless for an extended period in my twenties. I was mentally unstable, marginally employed, and did not panhandle. I had an ex who was homeless during her teens, before I met her. She was mentally unstable, unemployed, and did panhandle.

I think people have been jumping on Jacqueline a bit unfairly. She never said that homelessness was not a problem, or that all homeless people were faking it - in fact, she explicitly said that was *not* what she was saying. Although I disagree with part of her premise - I do not believe that the majority of money given to panhandlers is going to professionals who do not actually need it - her conclusions are actually pretty sound *even if* this part of her premise is incorrect. Giving money to good organizations may do more to help the actual problem than giving money to individuals. (Wide-scale social changes would do even more, but most people have only a very limited say in those.) Food Not Bombs, which she brought up, is an excellent example of an organization which has a pretty obvious and direct effect if you like to know how your donation is helping (although I've found that Food Not Bombs varies from city to city.)

I give some money to both organizations and individuals, but the majority to organizations, because I think it is a more effective means of fighting homelessness and poverty. When I give money to an individual, I do not consider it a means of fighting homelessness and poverty; I consider it giving money to someone, for whatever reasons I have for doing so, and once I give it, it's their money and I don't care if they buy food or drugs or funny hats.
posted by kyrademon at 4:32 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

jaqueline is right about what she says up to a point, the assumption that if your money went to efficient services more homeless people would be helped ignores the fact that a lot of homeless people stay away from these services as its quite dangerous for them to go there.
Generally, the toughest and most violent homeless people are first in the queue in all these places, so thats where the effective distribution theory falls down a bit for me.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:59 PM on March 23, 2008

I think people have been jumping on Jacqueline a bit unfairly
Gosh, I honestly hope that's not how I came off, I meant to raise a point about giving to individuals, not attempt to discredit or reject Jacqueline's very valid thoughts on the subject.
posted by dawson at 6:48 PM on March 23, 2008

I volunteer at a battered women's shelter and at a food bank. The food bank takes a lot of food down to the the "bridge city" where a lot of the DFW homeless encamp. That's a scary fucking place, I tell you what, and it breaks my heart to see the kids there. And it's not just one or two kids, it's a lot of freaking kids. And the sad thing is that those kids are probably safer under the bridge than they would be in any of the homeless shelters that aren't specifically designed for families. And those shelters have a tiny, tiny number of spots.

And kids who are over 11, but under 18, and don't have an adult to protect them? Many of those kids have been in the foster care system, and the ones I've talked to would rather stay under the bridge than be forced back into a system where degredation, abuse and molestation seems to be pretty common. It's a travesty, the entire methodology by which the less fortunate are treated is obscene.

And to some comments above about clean unders and socks, when I first started doing volunteer work, I'd mentioned that I was a soapmaker, and within weeks, I was asked by both staff and clients to please, please, please donate soap instead of cash or goods. I've taught "classes" under the bridge on how to make soap using crisco, red devil and a fire, and probably donate 200 pounds or more of soap a year, and I can't tell you the number of times I've cried at home thinking about how grateful someone was to get a fucking bar of soap. Fucking soap, man. Soap. How fucked up is that?

What the fuck is this? How can the richest nation in the world have thousands of people in just one city that are this lost? How the fuck does this happen? The fact that we haven't had a revolution blows my fucking mind every time I've gone downtown.

All of us on this site lead fairly privileged lives. If we didn't, we wouldn't have the luxury of sitting around posting on the blue. And there may be professional panhandlers, but for every one of them; there's a battered woman trying to protect her kids, there's a woman who's been raped every day just to get a place to sleep, there's a kid shooting up just to escape the visions that surround him, there's a military vet who's been thrown away after he got injured.

We ignore them at our own peril, for they are real and they are growing in number, and with a few twists of fate...they could be us.
posted by dejah420 at 7:31 PM on March 23, 2008 [17 favorites]

Regarding the Downtown Denver Partnership's "survey" and subsequent "findings":

Prove any part of it or them.
The alleged Denver Post article linked to by the blog you linked to no longer exists (if it ever did.)

Ya know, if you just knew where to look, you wouldn't be saying silly things like this. Here's the first half of the article:

MILLIONS TO SPARE Survey gauges handouts in Denver; officials seek to curb practice; [Final Edition]
Julie Dunn and Annette Espinoza Denver Post Staff Writers. Denver Post. Denver, Colo.: Aug 19, 2005. pg. A.01

Copyright Denver Post Aug 19, 2005

A survey of 600 Denver residents released Thursday concluded that nearly half of Denver adults gave money to panhandlers in the past year, with an average donation of $1.84.

Of those who gave, 26 percent said they did so at least once a month.

The study, commissioned by the Downtown Denver Partnership's Business Improvement District and the City and County of Denver's Office of Economic Development, said that the contributions totaled $4.6 million last year.

'The numbers are staggering,' said partnership president Tamara Door.

The partnership's stance is that people should donate to charitable agencies, not panhandlers.

The $4.6 million number is based on the survey's finding that 42 percent of Denver's roughly 447,000 adult residents give an average of $24.58 to panhandlers annually.

However, several panhandlers said they had seen only a tiny fraction of that amount and were skeptical of the figure.

'I'm lucky if I make $10 per week,' said Bill Pridemore, who lives in a subsidized apartment near downtown.

By late Thursday morning, Pridemore had made $2 sitting in his wheelchair on a corner of the 16th Street Mall.

Pridemore, 61, a disabled former paper recycling plant worker, doesn't carry a sign and refuses to ask for money, choosing instead to panhandle in silence two or three days a week.

Denver city ordinances prohibit aggressive panhandling, such as cursing, threatening or touching. Panhandling is also outlawed in certain locations, including near public telephones and automated teller machines and in front of building entrances....

posted by dw at 7:42 PM on March 23, 2008

This is not a plea for money from the Metafilter community. My story is very common in this area. Sometimes everything you try is still not enough. The homeless can and do have many different faces.

I am unable to live in my home, yet still paying a mortgage and home/flood insurance on that home. I'm receiving assistance for living arrangements that are due to end soon. I have a job and work full time. I wrote this letter and sent it to every level of Government starting with my Parish Rep. to the Gov of Louisiana. I have not given up hope yet.

I lost my home in Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana 70xxx. It was a single story home that flooded 7 feet and had 3 pine trees fall on the roof. The home was built in 1978 at a flood elevation of 7 feet. The current flood elevation for my home is 13 feet. Because the home sustained so much damage, xxx Parish required that I bring the home to current elevation if I wished to repair the existing structure. After meeting with a structural engineer and obtaining quotes for raising a 2400 sq ft slab home 6 feet, it would be more cost effective to tear down the home and rebuild.

On August 7, 2006 I signed a contract with xxx to build my home for $xxx,xxx. The contract specified all finishes and was to be a turnkey. They told me that the house would take about 6 months to build. $xx,xxx was due upon signing the contract. I gave them a check for $xx,xxx on 8/7/2006 and the balance of $xx,xxx on 1/11/2007.

Work was progressing along with a few delays. On 5/1/2007 I was told the second draw was due when the framing was done. I paid xxxx a third check on 5/1/2007 in the amount of $xx,xxx. I asked about the competition date as we were nearing the 6 month mark. They assured me that the home would be completed at the end of August. At that time I started ordering furniture in anticipation of moving into my home. On 7/27/2007 xxx asked for an advance on the third draw of $xx,xxx. They said the special order doors and windows needed to be paid in full before the order could be placed. The building was approaching a stopping point and the doors and windows need to be installed. I was very concerned and questioned them about the competition date of my home. I told them about the furniture I had ordered and they assured me that the house would be ready mid to late October. I wrote them a check on 7/27/2007 in the amount of $xx,xxx.

The first week in September 2007 a man by the name of xxx came to my FEMA trailer about 7:00 in the morning. I recognized him as the plumber that was working on my house. He demanded $10,500 payment from me for services rendered. He said I had until noon to make the payment or he would put a lien against my house. I called xxx to find out why the plumber had not been paid. xxx said they were running short on cash and that I needed to call his partner. I asked xxx for an accounting of where all the money had gone ($xxx,xxx). He said I would have to get that information from xxx. I called xxx, he told me they had run out of money and could not pay the plumber. xxx said he would send me an accounting in a few weeks; he needed that long to get it together. I was faxed a list of names and amounts paid. The total was $xxx,xxx. There was also a list of outstanding bills to various companies and sub-contractors totaling $xx,xxx.

I started receiving notices of liens placed against my property.
September 27, 2007 xxx, amount $8,800
October 4, 2007 xxx, amount $36,453.42
October 18, 2007 xxx, amount $14,097.26
Total $59,350.68

The house consisted of sub exterior walls, incomplete interior framing, windows, incomplete rough in of electrical wiring and plumbing, one set of stairs, front and rear porches, the roof was only the sub-roofing material
I tried to set up a meeting with xxx and xxx to discuss the status of the house, liens and a completion date. They kept promising to meet with me in xxx “next week”. I finally drove to Houston, Texas on November 16 and met with xxx and xxx. I brought photographs of the house. The sub-roof was leaking and every time it rained water was pouring into the house. The front porch was sagging and pulling off the structure. The wood framing for the details of the hip roof were turning black and started to collapse.

xxx told me that they had under bid the job and ran out of money. They told me they had no idea when they would finish the house, if ever or pay the liens. He also told me if I tried to sue him, he will claim bankruptcy. The meeting ended 30 minutes after it started. The end result was they had no plans to finish the house, I asked for my money back and they just laughed.

I filed a police report with xxx Parish. The investigating officer told me that my documentation (a signed contract and endorsed checks) was not detailed enough and that the District Attorney’s office will not file criminal charges against xxx or the two owners, xxx and xxx. I notified the Attorney General of Louisiana. I received a letter from them that they will send a notice to xxx, but I needed to retain my own attorney. In the meantime I am making monthly mortgage payments on the property to xxx. My mortgage is $xxx,xxx.

I retained xxx as my attorney. He will be filing in civil court against xxx.

I had a builder give me an estimate on completing the house. His estimate is $140,000. The house needs: A roof, railings for porch, front stairs, cement under home (house is on 10 foot piers), electrical, plumbing and heating. Bath and kitchen fixtures and cabinets, lighting fixtures, flooring, sheet rock, insulation and an exterior finish.

My housing situation has become quite dire. I was living in a FEMA trailer with my mother in her driveway with my two sons, 19 and 9. My FEMA trailer was delivered to my property, June of 2006. I lived with my two sons on my property until November 2007. My doctor told me that I needed to move from the trailer because of the health issues I was having. I relocated to an apartment November with my younger son. The apartment complex told me that they accepted the FEMA assisted living program called CLC. In February 2008, the apartment complex informed me that the board had voted that weekend not to accept the CLC rental program when it is turned over to HUD’s DHAB (Disaster housing) administration. This change over will occur April 1, 2008. I have written a letter to the board asking them to reconsider their position. I am waiting to hear from them. In the meantime, I’ve been searching for living arrangements that will accept the DHAB program. I have not been successful to date. I can not afford to pay both my mortgage and rent.

The builder I have been working with since January has completed the interior framing as well as the framing for the roof. A lot of the framing work that xxx had done had to be redone due to unsafe conditions. I have ordered and installed doors, cemented the under the house and getting bids for the roof. I have spent $xx,xxx since January to secure and keep the interior from deteriorating any more than it has. I still need to pay for the roof; hopefully it will be less than $xx,xxx. At that point I will be out of money and my home not livable. Please assist me anyway possible. I can be contacted at my work address as I'm not sure where I'll be living. Unless I get some relief and assistance pursuing the conviction of xxx, I will be filing bankruptcy and lose my unfinished home.
posted by JujuB at 8:23 PM on March 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

Thanks for that post. It's interesting to be thinking about this now. I saw an interview with Christopher Gardner recently. I was flipping around and saw him talking so I decided to watch it even though he was on *groan* Glen Beck *grooooooan* But one thing he talked about was the increasing number of working homeless, and not just from signing crap mortgages. People getting hit by medical problems and losing it all. When filming Pursuit of Happyness all those homeless people really were homeless. They were all paid $250.00 a day, and one couple fell into the working homeless "class" and thanks to that extra 500 boost they could now get a place to live.

It's crazy how little some people need, but it's just not always there.

Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and all of their ilk need to spend some time away from the mic and in front of a homeless person.
posted by Inversehelix at 8:32 PM on March 23, 2008

dejah420, what is your crisco+red devil soap recipe?
posted by vira at 10:40 PM on March 23, 2008

Vira: I googled "crisco red devil soap" and found this:
posted by enamon at 11:20 PM on March 23, 2008

With the cost of health care skyrocketing and heath insurance companies using any means possible to deny coverage, a health crisis can land any working/middle class person in the poorhouse and possibly on the street.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:20 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

A rising tide does not life all boats. Many, many people stayed poor in the Clinton boom.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:26 PM on March 23, 2008

I gave ten bucks to a sign waving pan-handler who was standing on the side of the road near a gas station. I then went to the gas station to get a water and I asked the clerk if he knew the panhandler guy. He did. The clerk said that he panhandled out there every day. If he made enough, at the end of the day, he'd go to the nearby Motel Six and get a room for the night. If he didn't, he'd sleep outside somewhere.

I can't think of any reason the clerk would lie on behalf of the pan-handler.

Now, the guys I know are scam artists are the ones who come up to you at gas stations claiming to need money for gas. They're always from out of town, but sometimes have local plates. They usually claim to be taking their father/mother/husband/brother to a hospital for treatment, usually one in the next county or thereabouts.
posted by Clay201 at 11:27 PM on March 23, 2008

There are other, and IMO more effective, options than giving money to homelessness organizations and panhandlers, at least in the United States: you could support local transitional housing programs, help pass inclusionary zoning laws, support public housing (which is, unfortunately, often not accessible for ex-offenders) and section 8 vouchers, or pressure your local government for more affordable housing options or subsidies for developers.

Likewise, you could support policies which require states and the federal government to take on more of the burden of producing low-income housing in local areas as those levels of government generally have more resources (or at least more flexible spending requirements) and often shy away from taking responsibility for housing programs in local areas. Or, while you're at it, you could elect leaders that won't systematically cut aid to states and cities trying to alleviate some of these concerns.
posted by lunit at 8:01 AM on March 24, 2008

You just get so much more "bang for your buck" if you give to a good charity than if you give directly to a panhandler.

So what you're saying is that we should give well?
posted by oaf at 8:38 AM on March 24, 2008

"So what you're saying is that we should give well?"

I think you should do your own research on the effectiveness of charities rather than relying on a website with shady marketing practices. For homelessness, your focus should probably be on local charities that are unlikely to be covered by that website.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:31 AM on March 24, 2008

I didn't believe the driving off in a BMW myth until I watched a man dip his napkin in his Starbucks so he could stamp coffee all over his face before he hit the streets. That was almost a year ago and that same man still asks me for a dollar a couple times a week. Growing up in Philly, I never understood why panhandling was illegal. I figured it was something people did because they had no other means of feeding themselves. Then I moved somewhere it is legal, Washington, DC, where I was once asked for money 11 times while walking four blocks.
posted by poipill at 12:02 PM on March 24, 2008

John Stackhouse, a reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, spent a week living as a street person in Toronto back in 1999. Seven Days on the Street. His conclusions are similar to Jacqueline's:
There is a deep well of public concern and charity, but much of it is misspent while those with the deepest needs, physical and mental, are overshadowed by panhandlers and others who crowd the public view.

Most of the panhandlers I got to know are serious crack addicts and alcoholics and spend almost all their begging money on their addictions.
I give to the local United Way instead.

A recent report on homelessness in BC:
We've been counting them and governments have been scrambling to try to help them, but a recent university study has been looking at a new question about homeless people in B.C. - what each one costs taxpayers a year.

The answer is $55,000 per person, or an annual total of $644.3 million in health, corrections and social services spending for all the homeless in B.C.

But the conclusion of the 150-page report - written by five academics at Simon Fraser University, the University of B.C. and the University of Calgary - is that B.C. taxpayers could even save money if that cash was instead spent directly on supported social housing.
The full report: Housing and Support for Adults with Severe Addictions and/or Mental Illness in British Columbia.
posted by russilwvong at 2:02 PM on March 24, 2008

Nifty post.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:52 PM on March 24, 2008

I am wondering how a relatively "normal" person becomes homeless. Not because I cannot imagine how this happens, not at all, because I can imagine how it could happen to me and anyone really, but I want to know from the person who posted that they have been homeless, what they feel is the most common cause of that transition from having shelter that one is paying for to not. The reason I ask is because I feel there is a lot of sanity in becoming depressed and unmotivated within the current system. I am not a strong believer in mental illness as a static thing but more see is as a result of conditions. (Check out Ed Podvoll's book The Seduction of Madness in particular the section called "recovery from medications" It is simply the best book on mental illness I have EVER read). (And in fact while you are at it check out my blog where I react to that chapter on a personal level in the essay called "Grief", if interested). So within that sanity of seeing certain types of futility I get curious about the transition point between home and homelessness, and how to work with that transition time.
posted by Sarinasimoom at 10:03 PM on March 25, 2008

To clarify, when I said that I am not a great believer in static mental illness per se, I was indicating that someone who, say for instance seems to choose homelessness would probably receive a diagnosis in most cases and I would be curious what their state of mind was at that point and what actually caused that transition.
posted by Sarinasimoom at 10:05 PM on March 25, 2008

I had a good friend who lived on the street for many years. He felt that about half the people on the street were crazy before they got there, and about half go mad in the first year or two, the cause being the fact that you're constantly in a state of stress. And of course, alcohol and drugs are rife.

From the homeless people I've met, I'd say that very low intelligence and schizophrenia were the two most common mental problems; but some, perhaps a lot, of the schizophrenics might well have been psychotic (which can be situational) instead. Generally, one tends to leave strongly irrational and potentially hostile people to themselves.

I take the idea of mental illness with a grain of salt. However, I strongly suggest you spend some time with someone who's schizophrenic before you dismiss the idea. Particularly when you see someone you know succumb, you realize that it is a force beyond their control, a disease, not just a personality weakness or self-indulgence.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:27 AM on March 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

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