An antidote for panhandling

“What should I do if someone asks me for money on the street?”    

This is, hands down, the question I get asked the most often. While not everyone who panhandles is without a home, many certainly are. It is a fair question. I do not claim to have a simple answer to a complicated social situation, and many thoughtful and knowledgeable people disagree on how best to respond to this question. But, after talking with dozens of people who panhandle and hearing from the countless people who give, this much I know: panhandling is a humiliating and degrading experience for everyone involved. I believe we can do better.  

Every major city (and even medium sized cities) across the country struggle with the same question. Should we give more citations? Should we ban panhandling in certain areas? Should we require people who panhandle to get a license?  

Rarely do you hear, “Should we get people connected to housing, employment, services and supports so that they do not need to beg for money for basic needs or self-medication?”  

This, in my opinion, is the right question and “yes” is the right answer.

For clarification, there are two kinds of panhandling. There is Aggressive Solicitation, which is, as the name implies, aggressive, intrusive, often repetitive, and to many people, frightening. This is illegal in Minneapolis and in these instances you can simply call 911.  Then there is panhandling, asking once for assistance or sitting or standing quietly with a sign on a sidewalk or freeway ramp or street corner. This is not illegal.  

“How do I know people are going to use the money for what they say they need?” You don’t. All of the judgment and suspicion surrounding panhandling simply add to the indignity of it all.  

The reason people are begging for money doesn’t matter. The fact is that we live in a society where people often feel they need to beg to meet their basic needs (food, shelter, children’s medications) or beg to have their addictions fed (there is a shameful lack of services to treat and house people with the debilitating illness of chemical dependency).  

In Minneapolis, thanks to the city’s support of our plan to end homelessness, we now have four street outreach workers who have connected 235 people to permanent housing since fall of 2007. The average length of their homelessness was eight years. What we have learned from ending homelessness for some of our most vulnerable residents is that when people are in housing their well being increases dramatically. For some, it also means they drink less, seek mental health care, connect with a primary care physician instead of frequenting the emergency room and quit or dramatically reduce panhandling.

At a panel discussion on panhandling this past year, one man spoke about his experience of homelessness. While he was homeless he panhandled for about 18 months. Here is what he said when asked if people should give money on the street.  

“You don’t have to give money. You could stop and tell them where the services are. You could pray for them. I would have appreciated that. I was miserable and not interested in cornering the market on that feeling. I don’t panhandle anymore. I have a home now. I have a wife now. And I have a rekindled desire to do good in my community.”

 This gentleman has since joined the Executive Committee, which oversees the work of The Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.

I cannot promise that if we ended homelessness for everyone we would see no more panhandling. We need more adequate employment opportunities and income supports to ensure that. I can promise you that we would see a marked decrease. This would be a healthier community. Perceptions of safety would be restored.

If this community would like to see an end to panhandling, then we need to invest more boldly in solutions. Four outreach workers is not sufficient. The vision is that, one day, we will have enough outreach workers and housing resources so that no one will sleep outside in the middle of winter in Minnesota and no one will need to beg for money for a place to sleep.

The Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, in partnership with the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, has launched a campaign to educate the community about solutions to homelessness and panhandling and to give the community a way to support people who are panhandling without handing them a dollar out of the car window. The campaign is called Give Real Change.  

Next time you see someone on the street who asks you for money, treat them with the utmost respect, politely decline and then go to
giverealchange.org and give.  

(One hundred percent of all funds collected through giverealchange.org go directly to street outreach with no administrative fees.)

Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator on homelessness for Minneapolis and Hennepin County, can be reached at cathy.ten.broeke@co.hennepin.mn.us.