Over at Blue-Collar Workman, TB was listening to a relative bellyaching when he happened to glance out a window and see someone begging on the street. This led him to reflect that most people’s complaints can look mighty petty when compared to real problems, like homelessness, unemployment, and poverty.
It’s true we should count our blessings, and that whatever problem we have, someone else has a worse one.
I’m skeptical about folks begging on the street corners, though. Two reasons:
1) A police officer who surfaced in one of my classes advised that one should never give street-corner beggars money, because most of them are drug addicts seeking cash to buy more dope. She also said they often have an organized system for allocating the most profitable corners — her description of this was pretty eye-opening.
2) Consider how much you could make if you parked yourself at the right corner or haunted the right parking lot. Twenty bucks an hour, maybe? That’s more than some of us earn on the job. If you’ve got welfare and food stamps, $20 to $50 a day, tax-free, would make for some decent pocket change; $20 an hour — unreported — would provide you with a decent living, especially when combined with government benefits.
For a panhandler to make $20, only two people would need to hand him a ten; only four would need to give him a fiver. And some people, you can be sure, do fork over a $20 bill — because, after all, that’s what comes out of the ATM.
There’s a guy who takes up a post outside the local Safeway, a would-be busker. He sets out a hat and plays the saxophone. Safeway employees chased him off the parking lot, so he does business on the sidewalk at the entry to the lot. Problem is, the guy can’t play. So his serenades consist mostly of ear-splitting sour notes. It sounds like an eight-year-old’s practice session. He’s a friendly sort, though, and will chat amicably with you if you say hello. A lot of customers go out of their way to carry hand-outs over to him.
It’s hard to know how much panhandlers actually earn, for obvious reasons. One sociological study suggested that beggars in Toronto made about $300 a month, although the authors admitted their subjects may have been low-end earners, in contrast with a Toronto journalist who, for an investigative story, lived on the streets and reported earning $200 a day.
Tales of middle-class and better income from panhandling are highly anecdotal. The Huffington Post, the Internet’s answer to The National Enquirer, once reported that a guy in Oklahoma City was earning $60,000 a year at panhandling. More credible is a study done by Coos Bay, Oregon, police showing that panhandlers outside a local Walmart were earning $300 a day — as much as the employees inside the store earned in an entire week.
Overall, though, apparently it’s not a high-income endeavor. In the first place, even if you did earn, say, $200 or $300 in a day, income would be sporadic, at best. And it’s unlikely your average panhandler sticks at the job eight hours a day, fifty weeks a year. Too, while many panhandlers are not homeless, most have substance abuse problems or untreated mental health issues.
Experts on homelessness and poverty recommend donating your money to organizations that feed, clothe, and house the homeless rather than forking over spare change to street-corner beggars. Of course this doesn’t help people who don’t want to stay in homeless shelters, for any number of excellent reasons. But at least it doesn’t transport your cash straight to some junkie’s drug dealer.
How do you respond to panhandling? Do you give money to people asking for a handout? Have you ever thought about panhandling yourself?
Image: The Old Beggar. Louis Dewis, 1916; painted just outside his clothing store in Bordeaux. Public Domain.