One of my friends and Facebook page Likes asked me to write a post about the etiquette of dealing with panhandlers. The issue of panhandling is more of an ethical and moral topic, but there is an element of etiquette to it.
What’s so challenging about panhandling for most people is wondering what the panhandler will use the money for. For many folks, the thought of giving someone money to buy drugs or booze keeps them from giving. I’ve also heard there are professional panhandlers that are not homeless or sick or whatever they say on their sign. This is why I hesitate to give money.
A friend of mine shared that her husband gives to panhandlers knowing they may be using the money to buy alcohol or drugs, but he feels it’s none of his business. He believes if they need money, they need money and he has no right to tell them how to use the money he gives them.
Others might argue that by giving money you are helping the panhandler to continue to abuse drugs and alcohol and are keeping him or her dependent on donations.
The other aspect of panhandling that bothers people is often there are so many panhandlers that it’s hard to know who to give to. You might wonder if you give to one, should you give to them all? Are some more worthy or needy than others? What about people who sell Real Change; are they more legitimate than other panhandlers?
I haven’t figured this out. I usually don’t give to panhandlers, but I will buy Real Change from a valid vendor. I like the idea of a commerce exchange, and the dignity and business sense the vendors get from selling the papers. I don’t usually read the paper. But, when I have, I have been impressed by some of the articles.
However, here’s where the etiquette and, I suppose, morality of the issue comes in. It can be maddening to be panhandled, and it can be maddening not knowing what the money is being used for. When a person is surly or not of sound mind it can be hard to be compassionate. But, what I know is etiquette is about making others comfortable and treating them with respect. No matter how flawed, we are all humans. We all are doing the best we can and deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect.
Keeping that in mind, even if I don’t give to a panhandler, I try to smile or at least acknowledge him or her. If I’m spoken to I usually respond kindly, but I don’t stick around for a conversation unless I’m purchasing a Real Change paper. If someone is rude to me, I ignore him or her. I don’t respond with rudeness even though it can be hard sometimes to hold my tongue.
That said, I’m not perfect, I’m often afraid if I give eye contact to the guy standing on the street corner facing traffic he or she will approach my car hoping for a donation. But, for the most part, I try to treat each panhandler with respect, whether I’m giving money or not. And, if you can at least do that, I think you are doing well. The rest is up to you.
For another pespective on panhandling, read this post by the Downtown Seattle Association.
How do you handle panhandlers? Do you give money to them? Why or why not?