After living and working in both Minneapolis and Milwaukee, I’ve grown accustomed to homeless people and other street denizens who ask for money. I’ve also visited plenty of even larger cities where the panhandling phenomenon is even more aggressive and pervasive. Although I do consider myself a liberal who advocates for the downtrodden, I choose to focus my time, energy, and money on long-range solutions for homelessness and other social ills. After all, you know what they say about giving a man a fish.
Panhandling, while it serves as a glaring reminder of social inequality, detracts from one’s city experience. I have assembled this homespun resource guide, which I call the “aggressive panhandling forum,” to help you reflect on the types of panhandlers, responses, and avoidance strategies out there. If you have suggestions or other additions to the aggressive panhandling forum, please submit a comment on the article.
Aggressive Panhandling Forum: Passive Panhandlers
– Sign Holders. These are the classic, usually unobtrusive panhandlers who sport ragged signs, often on torn-up cardboard. They sit or stand in high traffic areas and wait for people to read their message and take pity. It’s usually about losing a job or being a disabled vet, though sometimes you’ll see bible quotes and other guilt-driven strategies.
– Cup Jinglers. By rattling the coins they have already collected (or the “starter” coins they use to make it look like other people have donated), these panhandlers tend to let their hands do the talking. Some cup jingles will shake their container toward you – even under your nose – to be sure that you notice.
Aggressive Panhandling Forum: Active Panhandlers
– Story Tellers. While these folks can be the most entertaining and diverse group of panhandlers, they’re often the most frustrating to shake. Common stories include: how their car broke down and they need gas money, how they are trying to leave (or have already left) a domestic abuse situation, and (recently) how they lost everything in a hurricane or tornado. Of course, more inventive stories abound too. And it’s entirely possible that some story tellers speak the truth, but there’s no way to know.
– Direct Askers. These panhandlers get to the point with a question like: “Excuse me, can you spare a dollar?” or “Can you help me out with bus fare?”
– Easy Engagers. By using a simple, seemingly harmless question like “Do you have the time?”, these panhandlers engage you in a brief conversation before morphing into a story teller or direct asker.
– Pamphleteer. These people will try to lure you in by “selling” a community publication they may have picked up for free. Or they’ll offer you a pamphlet (often religious) and then proceed to panhandle. These people should not be confused with the legitimate press operations that employ the homeless in writing, printing, and selling a newsletter – often on public transit.
– Service Providers – Shrewd and attentive, these panhandlers prey on lost tourists and people in compromising situations, offering directions or perhaps a windshield squeegie job before asking for money. While the method is somewhat laudable for its enterprising spin, it’s still panhandling.
Aggressive Panhandling Forum: Most Effective Responses
– The total ignore. This involves saying nothing and not even acknowledging the person’s presence. It’s the overall best strategy for sign holders and cup jinglers, and it often works for the more verbally oriented beggars too. That said, completely ignoring someone’s existence (especially when they can tell you *did* notice them) is a tough assault on their human dignity. It may cause the panhandler to repeat their question, get louder, follow you, or blow up in anger that you’ve treated them as nonexistent. I’ve seen it happen a lot.
– The verbal “No.” A flat, firm, direct “no” is often your best defense against panhandling. It’s a clear, concise acknowledgement and denial at the same time. However, it should only be used for people who actually approach or engage you verbally. There’s no reason to say “no” to a sign holder or a cup jingler unless they talk to you.
– The head-shake “No.” I use this frequently. It lets the person know you saw or heard him/her but that you resist engagement.
Aggressive Panhandling Forum: Less Effective Responses
– “Sorry.” Sometimes an apology seems gentler or more polite than “no” – and in many cases, it’s fine. But on occasion, you’ll encounter a panhandler who bristles at hearing “sorry” and will come back with a “you’re not really sorry” comment or something more hostile.
– “I would help if I could” or “Not today.” I avoid this type of reply entirely, as it allows for too many possible objections from the panhandler. Chances are that you indeed *could* help, and Pete the Panhandler will remind you of your more advantaged social position. Or he’ll remember to ask you tomorrow!
– “You’d better leave me alone….” I sometimes hear tourists and other apparently clueless people lodge mild threats against panhandlers. This is never prudent.
– “I don’t have any cash on me.” or “I only have my credit card.” I watched people use these rejoinders and tried it myself once. Bad idea for several reasons. First, it implies that you would give the person money if it were accessible. Also, panhandlers are quite observant and often look for people who have just completed retail transactions. If they saw you with money twenty seconds ago or can hear the pile of change in your pocket, they may call you out on your lie, and then you’ve started more of a dialogue than you really want. And believe it or not, I once heard “Will you charge a sandwich for me?” in response to “I only have my credit card.”
Aggressive Panhandling Forum: How to Avoid Panhandlers
An inevitable element of urban life, panhandling can never be completely avoided by city dwellers or visitors. However, you can do some things to reduce your profile or deter panhandlers from approaching you specifically:
– Fake a cell phone conversation, or have a real one.
– Wear headphones. Regardless of whether you have an iPod of other device turned on, the headphones can be an adequate deterrent.
– Don’t make eye contact. If you lock eyes, even briefly, with a panhandler, s/he will almost definitely approach you.
– Don’t futz with cash, jingle change, or carry money in your hand. This should be obvious.
– When waiting for transit or just standing idle, read something. If you aimlessly look around or zone out, you’re just waiting to be approached.
– If you’re in a new city, try not to look lost. While most urban dwellers, panhandlers included, can recognize tourists almost instantly, you can at least avoid the direction providers and some other active panhandlers if you walk confidently, avoid loud discussions about your destination, etc.
– Stay on the move. The more casually you linger, the more likely you are to be approached.
While the most persistent panhandlers will still approach you, these little tricks reduce the likelihood you’ll be asked for money.
Aggressive Panhandling Forum: Final Thoughts
Do your best to avoid panhandlers in the first place. But when you are approached, rather than inventing a creative reply or otherwise sugar-coating your negative response, just be direct without being needlessly rude.