Most of us have seen or been confronted by a panhandler at some point in our lives which has likely elicited a variety of emotions within each of us. Lately, the issue has been right in our faces as there is rarely a chance that we venture out in our vehicles without seeing panhandling activities. I think most of us just want it straight. We don’t like to be handled, manipulated, or compelled in our giving. Most of us want to give, however, it just becomes a matter of how, when, and will it matter.
Because of my role in working in the social service industry, I’m often asked advice on how to address panhandling. Not wanting to dictate a “one size fits all” response, I’ve generally advised friends and associates to utilize good common sense and be sensitive to their own “gut” instinct or promptings when considering how to respond. Public policy rarely fits the individual needs of “the one” perfectly and is one of the reasons I’ve encourage the above approach. Each situation is different even though they may appear similar at first glance. Whereas one solicitation might lead to real danger, another might very well fulfill a sincere and legitimate need of your panhandling friend. One way that I address the issue personally is to carry and distribute panhandling cards that reference the local panhandling ordinance on one side, and list services available to them at the Food & Care Coalition on the other. It allows me to proactively approach a panhandler with a compassionate and sensible response that allows them to receive help while minimizing the panhandlers adverse impact on businesses and unsuspecting bystanders.
I hope that a few of the following thoughts will better arm readers with an increased understanding of the issue and ultimately assist you in determining how you will approach panhandling in the future. First, we must work within the framework of the law wherein there are inherent rights allowing individuals to solicit help. These rights, in turn, are counterbalanced by federal, state, and local laws that outline acceptable standards of conduct when soliciting occurs. Provo City had a well researched and practical ordinance that proved effective until about a year ago when a highly organized group of panhandlers began a campaign to push the limits of acceptable tactics. Essentially, they moved up and down the Wasatch front and intentionally became entangled with many city governments, threatening lawsuits if their constitutional rights to solicit were challenged. Panhandling activities grew much worse for a time as city governments backed off enforcement and considered measures that would achieve acceptable and desirable responses for their respective communities. Provo City has since adopted a revised ordinance adding language that prohibits a solicitation from occurring between a panhandler and moving vehicle in an established road right of way. With law enforcement help and a better educated public, panhandling has become less of an issue.
Secondly, I think we need to understand the context and need of what the panhandler is really asking for. Typically, we are led to believe that those needs are food, clothing, or housing. A panhandlers request is intended to elicit a giving response from us by appealing to our sense of humanity, by pricking our conscience, or sometimes even resorting to humor and brutal honesty – “why lie, I need a beer”. Some panhandlers are legitimately trying to sustain basic unmet needs. Many are mentally ill, physically disabled or otherwise have legitimate barriers resulting in unmet needs for themselves or their families. However, many are not. In speaking with law enforcement officials who went undercover to better understand panhandlers, they learned that 70-80% of them were not homeless, often worked in organized rings from out of state, and typically didn’t utilize available community resources designed to meet the very needs they were requesting help for.
Lastly, we need to work within the framework of our own conscience. Do we give or not give? Will my aid help or hurt the person, ie. is he buying food or alcohol? Will my $20 solve the problem or make it worse? Will my actions have unintended consequences or achieve the desired outcome? On this point, I learned a valuable insight from one of my staff members as we discussed the issue one day. He referenced a cartoon character from our early childhood days, Yogi Bear. As you may recall, Yogi and Boo Boo, by clever antics and design, would attempt to steal picnic baskets from unsuspecting campers throughout Jellystone Park much to the chagrin of Ranger Smith. The lesson to be learned was that it wasn’t necessarily the behavior of Yogi and Boo Boo that needed to be changed, although that would have helped. Rather, it was the habits of the campers that could have resolved the problem altogether by not leaving picnic baskets unattended. If we – the camper’s – feed the panhandling issue by giving without regard, it will only lead to an escalation in the problem. While I believe there are better means whereby we can support those in need, I stand by my advice shared at the beginning of this article – give according to conscience, but do so with a better understanding of the issues surrounding the problem. I guess what I’m saying is – leave behind a basket designed for those you’re trying to serve, rather than an indiscriminate picnic basket left on the table that may lead to more bears at camp!
Brent S. Crane, Executive Director